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.

The Shores of Tripoli 2.

In an approach that would be repeated in Syria at the time of the chemical weapons “red line” incident, the President first decided for intervention and then asked his military advisers what was possible. As would be the case later, he didn’t like what he heard. The eastern Libyan city of Benghazi formed the heart of the resistance to Qaddafi. His troops were advancing on the city, driving people before them. A no-fly zone wouldn’t do any good because Qaddafi possessed a huge advantage in conventional arms. Qaddafi “would have lined up the tanks and just gone after folks,” in the later words of then then-CIA director David Petraeus. This forced the President to seek a mandate from the UN for more than a mere no-fly zone.

The big rock in the middle of the road here was the Russians. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin opposed to American interventionism.[1] At first, the Russians opposed even a no-fly zone. Clinton consulted with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. She assured Lavrov that the US didn’t want another war in the Middle East. “Doesn’t mean that you won’t get one,” he replied laconically. Still, for reasons that the NYT story artfully elides,[2] the Russians agreed not to veto a UN resolution allowing “all necessary means” to protect civilians. The resolution carried on 17 March 2011.

On 19 March 2011 Secretary Clinton was in Paris to co-ordinate strategy with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.[3] Here Sarkozy blind-sided her by saying that French jets were already airborne for strikes, but that he would recall them if she wanted. Although this meant that the Americans would not control the pace of the initial campaign, Clinton declined to ask for the recall of the attacks.[4]

President Obama claimed that he had no intention of engaging in regime-change. On 22 March 2011, Secretary Clinton publically stated that the purpose of the mission did not include tossing Qaddafi out on his ear. The president ordered the Defense Department to prevent any massacres, and then to pass the task to the French and the British after ten days. Within three days, American forces had suppressed Libyan air defenses and halted the advance on Benghazi. However, the anti-Qaddafi uprising then spread to other areas. These uprisings were rooted in tribal or regional or religious identities long suppressed by Qaddafi. Their success might tear the country apart over the long run. The debate among national security officials turned to questions that might well have been considered before intervention. Was the “protection” mission to extend throughout Libya? Could Libyans be protected without evicting Qaddafi? What kind of government would replace him?

Events moved ahead of debate. By April 2011, the US had deployed drones to strike Qaddafi loyalist targets and inserted CIA officers to provide rebel commanders with combat intelligence. Increasingly, it became apparent that the Qaddafi regime would be destroyed, regardless of what the mandate from the UN authorized. Even so, the rebel offensive couldn’t move beyond Brega, on the coast road to Tripoli, where Qaddafi’s initial offensive had stalled months before.

In Washington, the scales began to fall from the eyes of the interventionists. Many in Congress were angry with President Obama’s contention that the War Powers Act did not apply because Americans were killing foreigners, but no Americans were being killed by foreigners. The Russians claimed that they had not approved regime change. The Arab League said the same.

[1] There is a report that Putin suffered a stroke in the womb before he was born. His obsession with physical attainments, from his judo matches to his riding a horse bareback to his hunting tigers are expressions of a heroic will to master his environment. It shows up in his politics and diplomacy. Or lack of diplomacy.

[2] See: “Obama versus Putin.”

[3] Why was the Secretary of State, rather than the Secretary of Defense, coordinating military plans with allies?

[4] Did she vote for the attack on Iraq in 2003 because she didn’t want to be labeled a “dove” when she ran for President in 2008? It’s always difficult reading the crystal ball, but Obama won as a “dove” in 2008.

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.