Using contested intelligence, a powerful adviser urges a president to wage a war of choice against a dictator; makes a bellicose joke when he is killed; declares the operation a success; fails to plan for a power vacuum; and watches Islamists gain power. That describes Dick Cheney and the Iraq War—and Hillary Clinton and the war in Libya.
At Tuesday’s primary debate, Clinton was criticized not just for the Iraq War vote that cost her the 2008 election, but also for the undeclared 2011 war that she urged in Libya. The Obama Administration waged that war of choice in violation of the War Powers Resolution and despite the official opposition of the U.S. Congress. “Governor Webb has said that he would never have used military force in Libya and that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was inevitable,” Anderson Cooper told the former Secretary of State. “Should you have seen that attack coming?”
Her answer included a broad defense of the war in Libya. “Remember what was going on,” she began, repeating a version of events that some intelligence officials and human rights groups doubt. “We had a murderous dictator, Gadhafi, who had American blood on his hands ... threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people. We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words. And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, ‘We want you to help us deal with Gadhafi.’”
She characterized the Obama Administration’s response as “smart power at its best,” saying that while America refused to take the lead in the war, “we will provide essential, unique capabilities that we have, but the Europeans and the Arabs had to be first over the line. We did not put one single American soldier on the ground.”
She then put a positive gloss on the war’s outcome. “I'll say this for the Libyan people…” she said. “I think President Obama made the right decision at the time. And the Libyan people had a free election the first time since 1951. And you know what, they voted for moderates, they voted with the hope of democracy. Because of the Arab Spring, because of a lot of other things, there was turmoil to be followed.”
That is about as misleading as summarizing the Iraq War by saying that the Iraqis had a terrible leader; they had a free election after the war; and they voted for moderates. It elides massive suffering and security threats that have occurred in postwar Libya.
Yet the answer didn’t hurt the Democratic frontrunner. That’s because neither CNN moderators nor prospective Clinton supporters understand the magnitude of the catastrophe that occurred amid the predictable power vacuum that followed Ghadafi’s ouster. “Libya today—in spite of the expectations we had at the time of the revolution—it’s much, much worse,” Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told Frontline. “Criminality is skyrocketing. Insecurity is pervasive. There are no jobs. It’s hard to get food and electricity. There’s fighting, there’s fear … I see very few bright spots.”
U.S. arms found their way into the hands of Islamists.
“Nearly three and a half years after Libyan rebels and a NATO air campaign overthrew Muammar al-Qaddafi, the cohesive political entity known as Libya doesn’t exist,” Libya expert Frederic Wehrey reported earlier this year in Defense One. “There is no central government, but rather two competing claims on legitimacy.”
He went on to describe the rivals:
On one side of the fight are the forces of Operation Dignity gathered around General Khalifa Hifter, a former Qaddafi-era officer who defected in the 1980s and returned to the country in 2011. In May, he launched Dignity as a military campaign to root out Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi and exclude Islamists from political power. His allies include disaffected military units, security men from the old regime, prominent eastern tribes, federalists demanding greater autonomy for the east, and militias from Zintan and other western towns.
On the opposing side is the Libya Dawn coalition... It includes ex-jihadists from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, militias from the powerful port of Misrata, and fighters drawn from certain Tripoli neighborhoods, the ethnic Berber population, and some communities in the western mountains and coast. Dawn has forged a tactical alliance with a coalition of Benghazi-based Islamist militias that are battling Hifter’s forces, one of which is the U.S.-designated terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia. Each side claims its own parliament, prime minister, and army.
In August, The New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson described the gains made by the Islamists as well as the consequences of ISIS fighters controlling territory in Libya:
Last November, battle-hardened Libyan Islamists, who had returned home from fighting in Iraq and Syria, along with Islamists from other countries, seized the eastern city of Derna and claimed it for ISIS. Emulating their comrades in Raqqa and Mosul, they stoned, shot, beheaded, and crucified people deemed guilty of espionage or ‘un-Islamic’ behavior. Last month, a rival militia loyal to Al Qaeda waged and won a battle for control of the city. The victors are said to have marched the captured ISIS commander through the streets naked before executing him. ISIS lost Derna, but in the past few months they have taken Qaddafi’s home town of Sirte and surrounding areas in Libya’s “Oil Crescent,” and have begun attacks on the outer defenses of the city of Misrata.
Alas, that’s not all:
For months, ISIS has been trumpeting its abduction and execution of African Christians in Libya. In February, a slick, ghoulish video showed twenty-one Egyptian hostages in orange jumpsuits being led along a beach by black-masked executioners, who forced them to kneel and then cut off their heads.
In April, another video appeared, showing the execution of twenty-nine Ethiopians in Libya. Gunmen who trained with ISIS in Libya were involved in the murder of twenty foreign tourists, at a Tunis museum in March, and thirty-eight more tourists, most of them British, at a seaside resort in Tunisia in June. These attacks focused attention on the fact that Libya, a vast, oil-rich, underpopulated country with a long southern-Mediterranean coastline, has become part of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate. In a parallel phenomenon, armed trafficking gangs in Libya are driving most of Africa’s illegal immigration to Europe. As many as a hundred and seventy thousand are thought to have made the crossing last year, with thousands dying en route. Unprecedented numbers are continuing to cross this year, taking advantage of the chaos in Libya.
An unnamed Obama Administration official told Anderson, “We think that the threat from ISIL-affiliated groups in Libya is very serious and we’re treating it that way.”
A strong case can be made that the war made Americans less safe.
Michael Brendan Dougherty offers one of the most incisive descriptions of Clinton’s incoherent approach. “American military adventurism relies on a very backward notion of causation,” he explained. “When evil men in the world kill their own people, somehow America is to blame for not stopping them. When American action leads directly to disorder, barbarism, and terror, well, that's someone else's fault.”
Death and civil war in Libya were unacceptable outcomes for America when Gadhafi was alive. But death and civil war continue unabated, the difference being that the Islamic State is now one of the players — and somehow it's not in the American interest to stop it or to help Libyans establish some kind of law and order. The lessons of Iraq have been internalized: Once you create a total power vacuum that will attract terror gangs and radical Islamic fundamentalists, it's best to not have any boots on the ground to stop them.
The catastrophe continues to unfold this month. The International Business Times reports that “an armed group in the northwestern Libyan coastal city of Sabratha kidnapped dozens of Tunisians late Monday night. The number of hostages has not yet been confirmed, but local news reports state that roughly 300 Tunisians were taken.”
The Wall Street Journal reports on the people trying to flee the region:
More than 300,000 refugees and migrants have tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, up from 219,000 in all of 2014, according to the United Nations refugee agency, and at least 3,000 have died en route. A significant percentage of those deaths have occurred on ships sailing from the Libyan coast around Zuwara, according to U.N. and Libyan officials. That area is known as a crossroads for smuggling both migrants and cheap fuel to Europe, and alcohol and cigarettes from Europe back to northern and sub-Saharan Africa.
What was a fringe business in Gadhafi’s time has blossomed into a core part of the economy, especially after layoffs at Zuwara’s main employers—a nearby oil refinery and chemical plant—because of the political uncertainty.
Clinton is hardly alone in bearing blame for Libya. But she was among the biggest champions of the intervention. As one of her closest advisors once put it in an email, “HRC has been a critical voice on Libya in administration deliberations, at NATO, and in contact group meetings—as well as the public face of the U.S. effort in Libya. She was instrumental in securing the authorization, building the coalition, and tightening the noose around Qadhafi and his regime.” She stands behind her course of action even today. More than that, she calls it “smart power at its best”!
As a result, Democrats ought to conclude that she hasn’t learned enough from her decision to support the Iraq War, and that a Clinton administration would likely pursue more wars of choice with poor judgment and insufficient planning. It is difficult to imagine a more consequential leadership flaw. And yet, the issue remains an afterthought in the campaign, even as multiple Clinton rivals criticize her hawkishness and pledge to be more wary of involving America in wars of choice. Neoconservatives could hardly orchestrate a Democratic primary more to their liking.