Where was the outrage about Clinton’s claim that the Libyan intervention, which she forcefully advocated for as secretary of state in the Obama administration, “was the right decision. Not taking it, and permitting there to be an ongoing civil war in Libya, would have been as dangerous and threatening as what we are now seeing in Syria.” Clinton didn’t mention the very real fighting—the civil war, you might say—that followed the intervention in Libya. She didn’t reflect on whether, on balance, the Libyan intervention has made Americans safer. And she didn’t discuss the excruciating calculus commanders in chief must make: how she weighs the Libyan lives lost in the conflict that came after the dictator’s death against the Libyan lives that could have been lost had the U.S. and its allies not intervened against Qaddafi. Lauer followed up with a question about Iran.
Where was the outrage about Trump’s assertion that Clinton “made a terrible mistake on Libya … [and] then they complicated the mistake by having no management once they bombed you-know-what out of Qaddafi. … I think that we have great management talents.” Lauer didn’t ask Trump why then, back in 2011, he had supported U.S. military intervention in Libya to “save … lives,” and why Trump had been so confident that it “would be very easy and very quick” to overthrow Qaddafi given his alleged longtime opposition to the Iraq War. Lauer didn’t ask for a couple concrete examples of how Trump would have managed the post-Qaddafi period better than President Obama. Instead, Lauer asked if Trump was “prepared” to be commander in chief.
Where was the outrage when Clinton said her vote for the Iraq War (as a national political leader authorizing war, not a businessman sounding off on a radio show) was a mistake, but then didn’t explain why, specifically, her support for the Libyan intervention wasn’t? Lauer didn’t ask for an explanation. Regarding the Iraq War, Clinton said “it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes.” Lauer wasn’t interested in what lessons she’d learned.
A national-security forum would have been a sensible time to probe the candidates on their theories of war in the post-9/11 world, and how those theories substantively differ—why they took the positions we know they took, what they learned from those decisions, and how they would apply those lessons as president of the United States. After all, as my colleague David Graham has noted, the interventions in Iraq and Libya “show how Clinton and Trump both came to the same conclusions about hitting Baghdad and Tripoli: The wars would be short, good for America, and good for the world. In both cases, they were wrong, and the major contrast between them is that Clinton was better versed in the specifics of both cases when she made her calls.”
The Commander-in-Chief Forum was just one of many instances so far on the campaign trail when matters of war and peace have been boiled down to who was for what when, who founded ISIS, who is a gift to ISIS, and so on. In Britain, the wars in Iraq and Libya have recently prompted introspection and serious wrestling with hard truths. Not so across the Atlantic.