The Shores of Tripoli 1.

In Spring 2011, came the “Arab Spring”: Tunisia, then Egypt, and then Libya.[1] Unlike the Tunisian or Egyptian leaders, the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi threatened to drown the rebellion in blood rather than yield power. Already in February 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looked forward to more trouble: “imagine how difficult [the transition of power] will be in Libya.”[2] By March 2011, the British, the French, and the Arab League—none of whom had real military power—wanted the US to intervene against Qaddafi. President Barack Obama, who had risen to prominence on the basis of his opposition to the 2003 attack on Iraq, was suspicious of the adventure. Compounding the difficulties, the government had little useful information about Qaddafi’s intentions. One State Department official told the NYT that they were captives of news reports to find out what was happening.[3]

Against this backdrop, a contest of policies raged inside the American administration. Voices of caution (notably Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) had warned against tossing overboard Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak just to gratify the young people in Tahrir Square. Now Vice President Joe Biden, Gates, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon argued that the Bush II administration had “taken its eye off the ball” in Afghanistan by invading Iraq in 2003. Intervention in Libya would have the same effect when the Obama administration struggled to extricate itself from those two long-running conflicts. Some in the intelligence community worried about what would happen if Qaddafi lost power.

Against them were younger aides—not identified by the NYT—who made a moral and sentimental appeal: “Mr. President, you’ve got to be on the right side of history.” This exerted real power on President Obama, who favored a forward policy in responding to the “Arab Spring.” Still, it would be hard to go against the opinion of the adults in the room once again. On 15 March 2011, Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, told the French ambassador that “you are not going to drag us into your shitty war.”

Abruptly, Secretary Clinton chose to join the side of the interventionists. Her motivations remain opaque. On the one hand, several of her former aides insist upon the “lessons of history.” President Bill Clinton had rejected intervention in Rwanda, to everyone’s regret; he had intervened against Serbia in the 1990s. Secretary Clinton did not want to stand idly by while another blood bath took place. On the other hand, she was very anxious to gain entry to the president’s inner circle of advisers.[4] Did she allow this desire to shape her policy?

On 14 March 2011, Secretary Clinton, who had voted for the attack on Iraq, met with the leader of one of the Libyan factions. “They gave us what we wanted to hear,” reported one of Clinton’s aids. “And you do want to believe.” Later that day, one French diplomat found her “tough” and “bullish” in favor of intervention. On 15 March 2011, even as Susan Rice made her blunt remarks to the French ambassador, Secretary Clinton warned the President and his other national security advisers that the French and the British were going to launch airstrikes on their own to create a no-fly zone. If things went wrong, the US would have to fish them out of the drink.[5] Clinton’s advocacy for action seemed to tip the balance, or at least to give President Obama the backing he needed to go against expert advice.

[1] Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Clinton, ‘Smart Power,’ and a Dictator’s Fall,” NYT, 28 February 2016.

[2] Scott Shane and Jo Becker, “After Revolt, a New Libya ‘With Very Little Time Left’,” NYT, 29 February 2016.

[3] Those accounts inflated the death toll, claiming thousands had been killed where Human Rights Watch would later count 350. However, the real issue is the suggestion that neither the US nor—astonishingly—the French had important intelligence assets in Libya. Even the French vastly under-estimated the amount of weapons that Qaddafi had accumulated. See Shane and Becker, “After Revolt,…”

[4] The NYT story tells of one 2009 episode in which she learned from the radio that there was a cabinet meeting scheduled for that day. “Can I go?” she asked aides.

[5] Apparently one “lesson of history” that Secretary Clinton did not learn was that President Eisenhower had let the French and British get out of their own mess in Suez in 1956.

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