The Shores of Tripoli 3.

In May 2011, Secretary Clinton met some rebel leaders in Rome. Their fight against the Qaddafi regime had stalled. They wanted more weapons to tip the balance. On behalf of the United States, she declined to help. The Obama administration worried that American-supplied arms would end up in the hands of Islamist extremists. (They had reason to worry. In June 2011, one load of arms from the French had fallen into the hands of a former inmate in a CIA “black site” prison.) The rebels went looking elsewhere. By Summer 2011, both Qatar[1] and the United Arab Emirates had emerged as major weapons suppliers to the rebels. Among those rebels were a number of Islamist groups, like those centered on the town of Misurata Cert.[2] As with her warning to the administration that France and Britain would go ahead with attacks on Libya without American participation, Secretary Clinton argued that the US had to participate if it was not to be left behind. Secretary Clinton persuaded President Obama to launch a covert program to arm the “moderate” rebels centered in Benghazi. On 15 July 2011, the United States recognized the rebels’ “Transitional National Council” as the legitimate government of Libya.

In August 2011, Qaddafi’s power-base had begun to collapse. Professional diplomats, like Jeffrey Feltman, were deeply alarmed at what had developed. Qatar continued to support Islamist groups as they maneuvered for power in post-Qaddafi Libya. Mohammed Jibril, the Libyan rebel leader with whom Secretary Clinton had been so impressed in March 2011, flew back and forth between Libya and Qatar to transmit orders. Jibril seemed totally unconcerned about disarming the foreign-armed militias that had—under cover of American air power—“defeated” Qaddafi.[3]

By October 2011, Qaddafi was dead. Secretary Clinton’s myrmidons celebrated her triumph. In an important step that reflected unhappy experience in post-Saddam Iraq, the State Department launched a $40 million program to “secure” (i.e. buy back from the militias) the huge stocks of weapons plundered from Qaddafi’s arsenals. In another important step, Secretary Clinton arranged for the release to the interim government of billions of dollars of Qaddafi’s “frozen” assets held outside the country.

Soon thereafter, Secretary Clinton disengaged from the Libyan issue. Partly, her tenure at the State Department began to wind down (and her preparations for another run at the White House in 2016 began to ramp up). More importantly, the Syrian front in the “Arab Spring” had blown up. Secretary Clinton switched her focus from intervening in Libya to overthrow Qaddafi to intervening in Syria to overthrow Assad. She urged President Obama to arm and train Syrian rebels.

President Obama resolutely refused to become embroiled in Libya as the Bush II administration had become embroiled in Iraq. He wanted the Europeans to take responsibility for Libya, but both France and Britain were pre-occupied with domestic issuers. He also rejected Clinton’s plan to arm Syrian rebels. Secretary Clinton had chosen adherence to President Obama’s wishes at the beginning of the crisis. She declined to change course afterward.

[1] See: “Your mind’s in the Qatar.”

[2] HA! Is art history joke.

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

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