Clinton, no regrets over Libya

A report contends that Hillary Clinton does not regret the action taken in Libya.

The piece opens, “If Democrats prefer to tie the chaos in today’s Middle East, specifically the rise of the Islamic State, to the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, the Republican history of the Middle East seems to start with the inauguration of President Barack Obama and the confirmation of Hillary Clinton as his first secretary of state in January 2009. For the GOP, it was Clinton who let chaos and Islamic militants spread across the region because of her active support for the Libya intervention – and as the general election approaches, Republicans are making Libya’s fallout a cornerstone of their attacks the Democratic frontrunner. But, in speaking with Clinton’s closest aides and advisors, it’s clear that she has already formulated a detailed defense. Clinton, they say, does not see the Libya intervention as a failure, but as a work in progress. The key lesson she has drawn from Libya is not that the United States should always avoid intervention or steer clear from the Middle East altogether, but that it needs to deepen its commitment to the region and find longer-term ways to engage with it. Whether or not the American public accepts that argument, it has clearly shaped Clinton’s present thinking on foreign policy”.

The piece goes on to mention “On the campaign trail, Clinton has not shied from defending her decision to support the intervention that toppled dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. “I think President Obama made the right decision at the time,” she said in the first Democratic debate in October as she pointed to the 2012 General Assembly elections in which Libyans voted mostly for moderate parties. But that answer focused on the more promising days of 2012 – before the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and the country’s descent into civil war. We are now, of course, in 2016. How does Clinton make sense of what went wrong in Libya in the years since she left the State Department? Her answer to that question is one of the keys to understanding how she will approach the Middle East if she makes it to the White House”.

The report adds, “The last part of that statement raises a key question: Are Clinton aides saying that Obama should have intervened in Syria? None of them will get into an extended discussion about the differences between the two, but more on that later. Obama and Clinton publicly addressed the fallout from the Libyan intervention in very different terms, which reflect not only a different diagnosis of what went wrong but also their divergent visions of American power. Three times now, Obama has alluded to regrets about the failure to plan for the day after, most recently this past Sunday on Fox News. Obama said that while the intervention “was the right thing to do” the worst mistake of his presidency was failing to prepare for the day after the fall of Qaddafi. In a recent interview with the Atlantic, he also said “there’s room for criticism” of the international approach, saying he “had more faith in the Europeans” to stabilize the country than was warranted. To some extent, Obama’s self-criticism overcompensates. There was plenty of planning for the “day after” during the eight-month NATO intervention. Even as the Libya uprising unfolded already in early March, the National Security Council established a working group to plan the post-Qaddafi period, led by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and drawing heavily on the experience of NSC officials like Samantha Power, now ambassador to the U.N. and Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Moscow. Officials were quoted at the time as saying they were working to avoid the postwar mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan. Former State Department officials also deny that anyone underestimated the amount of international support a post-Qaddafi Libya would need. Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the State Department and now her senior policy advisor on the campaign, insisted that diplomats felt they were mostly accomplishing their goals in the immediate post-Qaddafi period”.

Interestingly the piece mentions “Clinton’s advisors and aides point instead to two other key factors they believe contributed to the inability of the United States to stop Libya from fracturing: the Libyans’ refusal to allow any foreign security presence on their territory and the political aftermath of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. What the Obama administration may have underestimated isn’t so much the work that was needed, but the role that Libyans would play in their own future. U.S. officials and their critics often simultaneously underestimate and overestimate the power of Washington to make things happen in foreign countries. Both the United States and Europe offered a wide range of assistance after Qaddafi’s fall, including help in demobilizing militants, collecting weapons, and reforming ministries, but Libyans dragged their feet, refused help, or were unable to deliver. But key was the Libyan government’s refusal of any international forces from the outset”.

The report adds “the tragic attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, which claimed Ambassador Stevens’ life, is what irrevocably damaged Washington’s Libya policy. Following the attack, American personnel were evacuated from Libya, including the small State Department team. Coming two months before the U.S. presidential election, the fallout became toxically politicized on all sides, distorting the debate and undermining Libya policy. “What effectively happened after Benghazi was the U.S. took what was already a modest toolbox in Libya, and we went home,” said another Clinton campaign advisor, Derek Chollet, who served as deputy chief for policy planning under Clinton until 2011, then was on the National Security Council staff before serving as assistant secretary of defense for international security until 2014”.

Crucially he write “The Benghazi attack came two months after the parliamentary elections and soon after the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting when everything comes to a standstill in Muslim countries. By September, work should have begun in earnest to formulate new policies and reforms and help with governance — work that Stevens would have wanted to help guide. Instead, there was a run for the exits”.

Naturally this led to “A new ambassador, Deborah Jones, arrived nine months later, in May 2013, working with a reduced staff in Tripoli. But by July 2014, the U.S. embassy had to be hastily evacuated due to the rapidly deteriorating security situation, forcing Jones to operate out of Malta. The U.S. embassy in Tripoli remains closed to this day, and no date has been set for the return of American diplomats to Libya. The current ambassador, Peter Bodde, operates out of neighbouring Tunis. With no presence on the ground in Libya, the United States found itself increasingly unable to steer any policy that prevented the country’s further descent into chaos. This was a dilemma Clinton recognized, and lamented. Lost in her 11-hour testimony in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi in 2015 was her appeal not to let the lesson of Benghazi be a zero-risk approach for diplomats. In essence, it was an appeal to Americans to understand that danger and death are sometimes part of the cost of doing diplomacy to further American interests”.

Correctly he argues “If Clinton still believes the Libya intervention was justified, but not the Iraq war, it’s in large part because of the differences in how each was justified: faulty intelligence in one case and the concept of responsibility to protect (R2P) in another. Which is why in Clinton’s circle of aides and advisors, there is no room for doubt. Their view is that there was simply no other course than intervention, one aide told me. Needless to say, if somehow Clinton did have any regrets about her decision, expressing them now, during the presidential campaign, would be highly damaging to her candidacy. But in late February and early March of 2011, as the uprising in Libya was unfolding and Qaddafi was threatening to level the city of Benghazi, the Obama administration was harshly criticized by Republicans for failing to do more and faster, and pressed by Britain and France to help in Europe’s backyard”.

Thankfully he notes “It also means that under similar circumstances, a President Hillary Clinton would likely consider intervention again. Burns acknowledged the decision to intervene “is the toughest question of international politics today,” and said the key is a willingness to stay for several decades with political and economic support, such as in Afghanistan or Bosnia. This point about the need for patience is one that Clinton and those around her keep on returning to when discussing Libya”.

He argues that “The lesson that Obama and many officials in his administration appear to have drawn from the Libya episode is that the Middle East is hopeless. That view was best summed up by former Obama administration official Phil Gordon, who wrote that whatever approach the United States had taken in Iraq, or Libya, or Syria, all of it had been a “costly disaster.” In contrast, Clinton has clearly not given up on the region. Her campaign aides are careful not to criticize the president in an election year, when his approval ratings hover around 50 percent, and they push back against any suggestion of daylight between the former secretary of state and her former boss. But the differences are in the tone — and in the details. Clinton, for example, has called for a safe zone in Syria, which Obama has resisted. And outside policy advisors like Burns have penned critical pieces criticizing Obama for having “risked America’s credibility in the Middle East.” Sullivan laid out the beginnings of a broader vision for how to engage with the Middle East, one that tries to be more innovative but also returns to some of the traditional pillars of American foreign policy and regional alliances that Obama has tried to shed. No one has the money or ability to implement a Marshall Plan for the Arab world, or any delusion about America single-handedly determining the region’s future — but there are mechanisms to provide more sustained, comprehensive support to Arab allies. He and others describe the need for consistent investment in building capacity of local institutions, the importance of bolstering state and security institutions, without relying on the tactics of brutal dictators. Tunisia is cited as a model, albeit still a tenuous one”.

The piece ends “Again and again, the idea of comprehensive engagement with the Middle East returned in the conversations. Nicholas Burns said the region was “too important” to walk away from and described the current chaos as a hurricane: The key concern at the moment was to keep things standing, he said, and efforts to rebuild can begin once the hurricane passes. “Countries we really care about and have spent decades working with — like Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey — are being engulfed by this violent cycle,” he said. “These are our partners, our allies. You need to stay and help them.” Sullivan put it more bluntly in terms of U.S. interests. “If we just abandon the region, we are going to end up paying a price down the road,” he said. That is not a message American voters are primed for, having not ever heard it from the president, who sees no benefit from projecting American power in the Middle East. And it’s certainly not a message voters will hear from the isolationist Republican candidates Trump and Cruz. Hillary Clinton hasn’t yet made a full pitch for why Americans should still care about the Middle East — but when she does, it’ll be a hard sell”.

 

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