The Shores of Tripoli: An Attempt at Perspective.

What were some of the consequences of American action? First, there were the weapons. Over the years, Qaddafi had stockpiled conventional weapons. The victorious groups looted this arsenal. Some they used to increase the violence in the Libyan civil war that still rages. Some may have flowed toward ISIS in Syria. Many flowed to Islamist groups in the Sahel and West Africa. Second, there was the collapse of order in Libya and the rise of factions with ties to organized crime. This, in turn, opened a gateway for paying passengers who wished to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that for a long time many of the Sahelian and West African countries are or have been on the verge of becoming “failed states”. People have been eager to flee for years. The collapse of Libya opened a pathway for migrants. It did not create the underlying conditions that make people want to leave. This has great importance for the future of Islamist movements in the region.

Some of the proponents for action in Libya in 2011 now suggest a stark dichotomy: “a blood bath in Benghazi and keeping Qaddafi in power, or what is happening now.”[1] Were these the only choices? How can democracy be created in a country that has no experience with democracy or politics? Can it be done over the short-term by toppling a tyrant, creating political parties, and holding elections under international supervision the first few times? Is it a long-term project that can span several generations of political education under outside control? One Human Rights Watch official has remarked that there have been international peace-keeping forces in Bosnia for twenty years. Bosnia figured as one of the “lessons of history” in Secretary Clinton’s decision to favor intervention in Libya. America’s foreign policy in the early 20th Century may offer useful “lessons of history.” In Panama, the United States rigged-up a coup, then put in power a puppet government, and then stayed for a hundred years while the Panamanians developed a viable democracy. In Mexico, Woodrow Wilson set out to “teach the Mexicans to elect good men.” Then he went home. The League of Nations “Mandates” system provided a cover for European imperialism, but it offers a model for less predatory governments.

The whole episode suggests some of the psychological vulnerabilities of Hillary Clinton. She decided to support intervention after a single meeting with rebel leaders (men in suits) who assured her that they represented the whole country and that they had a plan for building a democratic Libya. Apparently, she just took their word for it. The experience of Iraq, where similar figures had sold the Bush II administration a pig in a poke made no impression on her. This suggests that she is credulous. Her arguments for intervention and for arming the rebels—if we don’t do it, then somebody else will—suggest that she is reactive and imitative. In private discussions with her advisors, she often cited her husband’s advice.[2] This suggests that she is unsure and indecisive. According to one aide, Clinton’s “theory on [Vladimir] Putin is, this is a person with some passions—if you get him going [talking] on those passions, your capacity to try to deal with him is improved.” This suggests that she has a shallow understanding. Did she get him talking about Anna Politkovskaya?  If elected, a President Hillary Clinton will have to deal with a powerful foreign leader about whom she understands nothing.

The real burden of decision not to sustain American involvement in Libya rests with President Obama. Secretary Clinton merely adopted the policy he seemed to favor. President Obama has acknowledged his error, while contending that the initial intervention had been the right choice. In contrast, Secretary of Clinton appears to have learned nothing at all from this particular “lesson of history.” She told The Atlantic that “’Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Maybe not, but it’ll do.

[1] Gerard Araud, then French ambassador to the United Nations and currently French ambassador to the United States, quoted in Becker and Shane, “Clinton,…” .

[2] “That’s what Bill said, too.”—Dennis Ross, quoted in Becker and Shane, “Clinton…” So, who will be president if Hillary Clinton wins in 2016? Just asking.

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