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Hillary Clinton Has No Regrets About Libya

The intervention didn’t go according to plan. But the Democratic front-runner doesn’t think withdrawing from the Middle East is the answer.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton poses for a photo during a visit a hospital in Tripoli, the capital of Libya on October 18, 2011. AFP PHOTO/KEVIN LAMARQUE/POOL (Photo credit should read )
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton poses for a photo during a visit a hospital in Tripoli, the capital of Libya on October 18, 2011. AFP PHOTO/KEVIN LAMARQUE/POOL (Photo credit should read )

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.

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 Republicans] are going to make a big effort to suggest that the current instability in Libya reflects on the secretary,” one Clinton campaign aide told me. “But the secretary feels confident … people will see that her decision-making and her leadership helped save us from a scenario where it could have come become another Syria.”

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.

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. On Aug. 31, 2011, a few days after the fall of Tripoli, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he wanted to “get U.N. personnel on the ground absolutely as quickly as possible, under a robust Security Council mandate.” Ban’s special advisor for Libya, Ian Martin, had already drawn up an extensive plan that envisaged U.N. police and military observers and an interim protection force for the observers. The Libyans, however, wouldn’t let the strategy move forward.

This eventually made it hard even for the United Nations to operate. A European diplomat told me the U.N. mission negotiated for six months to even be allowed 200 guards to protect themselves.

“From my perspective, this was the font of all the challenges, the fact that they wouldn’t accept a U.N. presence or any meaningful security assistance,” Sullivan said. “Without security, there was a much lower chance of success.”

Going in with a heavy military presence against the wishes of the local government was not an option, and would have been hugely unpopular in the United States. Not only did the Libyan authorities not allow any foreign security forces, they never dealt decisively with the militias that proliferated during the war, as rebels worked to oust Qaddafi. This undermined efforts to build a national army, intensified tribal divisions, and accelerated the descent into factional fighting that would eventually split the country into two warring halves.

But 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

“What little progress we were making, and we were making progress before September 2012, became impossible to sustain,” Chollet said. “What was a difficult effort became virtually impossible.”

Embedding any advisors inside ministries to guide reform efforts became a nonstarter. Plans to help with organizing budgets or transitional justice, or programs that the Pentagon was handling such as training armed forces, became almost an insurmountable challenge.

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.

“We were in the process of developing precisely those plans when they were derailed by a devastating blow from which we never fully recovered,” wrote Ben Fishman, former national security council director for Libya, in a recent article.

The political firestorm that followed the Benghazi attack meant there were few options to maintain a diplomatic presence in Libya. No one in Tripoli or Washington wanted to consider U.S. troops to protect the American embassy.

Chollet told me that even if a modest diplomatic presence could have made a difference on the ground, there was no incentive to take the risk and find out amid the “Benghazi witch hunt.”

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 neighboring 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.

“If you ask our most experienced ambassadors, they’ll tell you they can’t do their jobs for us from bunkers,” she said. “It would compound the tragedy of Benghazi if Chris Stevens’ death and the death of the other three Americans ended up undermining the work to which he and they devoted their lives.”

All of these issues raise a question similar to the one asked of Jeb Bush last year, about his brother’s invasion of Iraq: If you knew then what you know now, would you still do it? If Clinton knew that chaos would ensue, that the Islamic State would take hold in Libya, would she still have advocated for intervention?

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.

The narrative that a massacre was imminent has since been disputed, including by human rights organizations. But at the time, action felt urgent. The death toll was already estimated to be between 1,000 and 2,000 people. A European diplomat told me recently the choice was “between rivers of blood or a mess.”

“The U.S. was absolutely right to go into Libya,” Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state and Harvard professor who is advising the Clinton campaign, also said simply.

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.

In an NPR interview that summer, when asked about Libya, she said: “I think it sometimes shows American impatience, that, ‘OK, you got rid of this dictator who destroyed institutions. Why aren’t you behaving like a mature democracy?’ That doesn’t happen overnight.”

Since the answer in that first debate, which froze Libya in a 2012 bubble, Clinton has returned to the theme.

“You know, the United States was in Korea, and still is, for many years. We are still in Germany. We are still in Japan. We have a presence in a lot of places in the world that started out as a result of conflict,” she said during a CNN town hall in South Carolina in February.

“This doesn’t happen overnight. And, yes, it’s been a couple of years. I think it’s worth European support, Arab support, American support to try to help the Libyan people realize the dream that they had when they went after Qaddafi.”

Clinton’s answer, while not suggesting Washington should deploy thousands of troops in Libya for decades, underscores her belief that the United States can still effect positive change in the world through other means. Her critics will call this misplaced optimism. But her answers are also a way of saying that it’s too early to determine whether the Libya intervention, and thereby that part of her legacy, are a failure.

Perhaps time will prove Clinton right. The former secretary of state will no doubt take heart in recent developments in Tripoli, where a fragile peace is in place and a U.N.-backed central unity government is trying to establish itself. Sullivan told me Clinton still believed there was a “strong bloc of moderates in Libya who want a serious democracy and want to own the future of their country.”

“But without a strong platform of security, you cannot build a democracy effectively, so from her perspective any real path forward in the Middle East has to start with accountable, effective, durable security institutions,” he added.

So, what does that tell us about how a Clinton administration would engage with the Middle East?

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.

“It can’t be going back to the old bargain: You take care of security and we look the other way,” Sullivan said.

That’s a novel proposition for the United States, and one that many citizens in the Middle East would welcome. But it would require the complex task of completely re-imagining the relationship with countries like Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia where even today, five years after the start of the Arab uprisings, the conversation between Washington and its allies has been reduced to counterterrorism. A quest to maintain stability has overtaken any serious efforts to confront allies about human rights abuses or crackdowns on civil society.

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.

Photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Kim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is the author of <a href="http://www.amazon.com/The-Secretary-Journey-Hillary-American/dp/1250044065"><em>The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power</em></a>. Follow her on Twitter: <a href="https://twitter.com/bbckimghattas">@BBCKimGhattas</a>.

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