- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
If President Barack Obama could go back in time and change something about his presidency, he’d choose the U.S.-led intervention in Libya.
As Obama increasingly looks to his legacy, the inevitable do-over question from an audience member Thursday night at the PBS NewsHour Town Hall in Elkhart, Indiana, also underscored how his foreign policy is a political minefield for Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state looking to succeed him in the White House.
“Mr. President, what is the one thing you would go back and change during your presidency, and how would you change it?” asked the questioner in Elkhart, where Obama made his first trip as president seven years ago.
On foreign policy, Obama said it was the 2011 operation in Libya, where the U.S. spearheaded a U.N. and NATO-backed airstrike campaign. Former President Muammar Qaddafi — “this guy,” Obama called him, in a reminder the strongman was considered a state sponsor of terror — had threatened to slaughter thousands of Libyan people.
“We succeeded and probably saved tens of thousands of lives,” Obama responded, referring to the “broader coalition” that went in. “But I did a little too much counting on other countries to then stabilize and help support government formation, and now it’s kind of a mess.”
In March 2011, the U.N. authorized a military intervention, and days later, the U.S. and coalition partners established a no-fly zone over the North African country and began to bomb its government forces. Qaddafi was ousted and killed that October. But Libya has continued to unravel, with the Islamic State swarming in to fill the chaotic vacuum ripped open by the war and the rival factions and governments that followed in its wake.
It’s not the first time Obama has expressed regret over the faltering follow-up. But Obama’s remarks on Libya came just hours after his former secretary of state gave a national-security focused speech with sharp criticism of her likely rival in the 2016 presidential election, presumptive-GOP nominee Donald Trump.
Clinton’s speech in San Diego also served to launch her line of attack against Trump in the general election, arguing his often incoherent and contradictory pronouncements on foreign policy prove he is too dangerous to be commander in chief.
But with the inevitability that the Libya “mess” will be inherited by Obama’s successor — along with a spate of global crises from Syria to Ukraine to the South China Sea — the president’s remarks also remind that Clinton’s more aggressive tack also opens her far more extensive record up to higher scrutiny.
While it’s far from clear whether Obama’s successor will be Trump or Clinton, it’s the likely Democratic nominee who is most closely associated with the current president’s foreign policy — particularly in Libya.
As secretary of state, Clinton was one of Obama’s advisors who advocated strongly for military action in Libya. She also headed the State Department when the U.S. ambassador and several other Americans were killed during attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012. Republican lawmakers continue to try and build a case that Clinton is at fault for failing to provide adequate security before the attacks and that the administration intentionally misled the public after, though a handful previous investigations haven’t found evidence of wrongdoing.
The Libyan ambassador to the U.N. recently told Foreign Policy that the chaos that followed the intervention was not the United States’ or the coalition’s fault, but a crisis of governance of the Libyans’ own making. Still, Republican opponents have already made clear they will attempt to use Libya, and Clinton’s far deeper experience, against her.
“Crooked Hillary Clinton’s foreign interventions unleashed ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. She is reckless and dangerous!” Trump tweeted on May 21.
It should be noted that Trump also once supported intervention in Libya to remove Qaddafi, saying at the time, “At this point, if you don’t get rid of Qaddafi it’s a major, major black eye for this country.”
In 2016, Clinton, for her part, has decided to defy these efforts and not only defend but tout her experience as a major strength for her bid to be commander in chief.
She has argued that Libya’s own obstruction prevented success. While the Libyans couldn’t provide their own security, she has said, they resisted U.S. troops — or any foreign force — providing it for them.
“We can’t walk away from that,” she said in a Democratic presidential debate in New York in April. “The Libyan people deserve a chance at democracy and self-government. And I, as president, will keep trying to give that to them.”
Clinton did not mention Libya in her speech Thursday.
Photo credit: STRINGER / Stringer