In an interview with FOX News aired on Sunday, April 10, President Barack Obama said that failing to prepare for the aftermath of the ousting of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi was the worst mistake of his presidency. He added that intervening in Libya nevertheless had been “the right thing to do.”
The second part of Obama’s statement is incomprehensible. The intervention was a debacle. No less than Iraq, Libya would have been better off without the U.S. doing “the right thing.” The country has descended into Hobbesian mayhem. It is today a paradigmatic “failed state” ruled by competing militias. Today’s Libya is a safe haven for thousands of battle-hardened jihadists. According to General David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command, the current number of ISIS fighters in Libya is “around 4 to 6,000,” twice the group’s size estimated last year. The North African redoubt of the Islamic State—strongest by far outside Iraq and Syria—has prompted some of Obama’s advisors to press for a second American military intervention in Libya. The country is the greatest threat to the region’s stability—notably in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, in Nigeria (Boko Haram) and Mali—and it is the main point of departure for hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim migrants flooding into Europe.
Even more alarming is the possibility that the main architect of the Libyan disaster will be the next occupant of the White House. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last January that he thought then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “influence was pivotal in persuading the President to broaden the goal in Libya beyond just saving the people in Benghazi” from the alleged threat presented by Qaddafi’s army, and “essentially focusing more on regime change. The President told me that it was one of the closest decisions he’d ever made, sort of 51-49, and I’m not sure that he would’ve made that decision if Secretary Clinton hadn’t supported it.” Gates later recalled asking, “Can I finish the two wars I’m already in before you guys go looking for a third one?” Colonel Qaddafi, he said, “was not a threat to us anywhere. He was a threat to his own people, and that was about it.”
His assessment is supported by a major two-part feature published by the New York Times on February 27 and March 3 (“The Libya Gamble,” part one here, part two here). Hillary Clinton’s late-night meeting in Paris on March 14, 2011, with Libyan opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril set the scene for the ensuing disaster. At that meeting she was supposed to find out whether the opposition’s Transitional National Council really represented the whole of Libya, and what was its plan if Colonel Qaddafi quit, fled or was killed. By the end of the meeting, we are told, “Mrs. Clinton was won over.” U.S.-educated Jibril “said all the right things about supporting democracy and inclusivity and building Libyan institutions, providing some hope that we might be able to pull this off,” according to Philip H. Gordon, one of Clinton’s assistant secretaries. “They gave us what we wanted to hear. And you do want to believe.”
“You do want to believe” is the key. A responsible decisionmaker would have requested in-depth situation reports from America’s intelligence community, rather than relied on the word of an interested political operative (who was briefly Libya’s spectacularly ineffective prime minister after Qaddafi’s fall). In exactly the same vein, in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, influential neoconservative officials and ideologues (Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith) “wanted to believe” that Ahmed Chalabi and his fictitious “Iraqi National Congress” would build a secular democracy with close ties to Israel. Celebi duly provided a major portion of the “information” on Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and his equally fictitious ties to al-Qaeda. The results are known to all.
In both cases, the decision to intervene was not based on a comprehensive assessment of America’s strategic interests but on the preconceived resolve to act—followed by the scramble for some grounds to “hope that we might be able to pull this off.” Obama’s “mistake” in failing to prepare for the aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall was structurally inseparable from the intervention itself. The whole affair is a case study of flawed foreign policymaking: confusion of ends and means, the quest for tactical results devoid of any grand-strategic design.
Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is largely founded on her claim to possess foreign policy experience and acumen. The record of her pivotal role in the Libyan disaster—at the moment of her greatest influence within the Obama Administration—provides an alarming picture of what kind of president we may get next November. As a key exponent of the liberal-interventionist credo of American exceptionalism (notably shared by her protégé Samantha Power at the UN), she is temperamentally prone to forceful action in the name of “doing good.” At the same time Hillary Clinton is loath to take any responsibility for the predictable consequences of mission-creep and chaos. She has declared that it is “too soon to tell” how Libya will turn out (February 28), and she has indicated that she would act more forcefully in Syria. According to the Times, “In Libya, Mrs. Clinton had a new opportunity to support the historic change that had just swept out the leaders of its neighbors Egypt and Tunisia. And Libya seemed a tantalizingly easy case—with just six million people, no sectarian divide and plenty of oil.”
If Hillary Clinton becomes president, there will be many similar “tantalizing” temptations. She has neither the wisdom nor the intelligence to resist them. The future is grim.