When Hillary Clinton appears before Congress’s special committee on Benghazi Thursday, she’ll likely be asked all the wrong questions.
Clinton will be peppered with queries about why she kept a private email server, what caused the 2012 attacks on the U.S. special consulate in Benghazi, and how come U.S. forces didn’t respond more quickly to the strikes. But the really important issues—the questions longstanding followers of the U.S. and NATO intervention want answered—are: Why did Hillary Clinton push for strikes that contributed to the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi? And why didn’t the Obama administration bother to plan for the all-too-predictable chaos that came next?
In 2011, as the United States considered intervention, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among those who pushed for intervention—without resolving just how Libya would be governed after Gaddafi, according to a senior defense official who was part of the decision-making process. Obama advisers like Samantha Power and Susan Rice also made the case alongside Clinton. They argued the U.S. had a moral obligation to save lives in Benghazi facing a threatened genocide by Libyan dictator Gaddafi. The only strategy spelled out publicly was that the Europeans’ newly formed “Libyan Transitional Council” would be at the forefront of the effort. Washington was “leading from behind,” to use a famous phrase from the era.
As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who opposed the U.S. intervention, frustratingly explained to The Daily Beast: “We were playing it by ear.”
And the consequences of that improvisation are still being felt today. The country is an epicenter of the refugee crisis sweeping the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Part of Libya is under the control of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. And the Russians use the U.S.-NATO intervention in Libya to justify their own military incursions in places like Syria.
But to Clinton, Libya was—and still remains—a major achievement. “We came, we saw, he died,” she crowed in October 2011. “Smart power at its best” is how Clinton described it during the most recent Democratic debate.
Clinton campaign aides note that she spent months working with the Libyan parliament to craft a successful state in both the run-up to American intervention and afterward, all while honoring a Libyan request for limited Western intervention. Above all else, the aides stress, the United States had a moral obligation to act in Libya.
“The alternative was so bleak, we simply had to take action,” one aide to the Clinton campaign told The Daily Beast.
President Obama, however, didn’t see things quite that way. He was reportedly reluctant about the operation—until Clinton, Rice, and Power swayed him, over Gates’s objections. “Clinton won the bureaucratic battle to use DOD [Department of Defense] resources to achieve what’s essentially the State Department’s objective,” Steve Clemons, then an analyst with the administration-friendly New America Foundation, told Foreign Policy at the time.
According to Gates, Obama told his advisers that he was 51/49 in favor of intervening. The ratio is telling. According to the New York Times Magazine, Obama was 55/45 about conducting the May 2011 raid that eventually killed Osama bin Laden.
And when Obama finally agreed to the operation, he stressed “Operation Odyssey Dawn” would be a limited effort to protect civilians from a possible genocide by the Libyan government. Removing Gaddafi was the last thing he wanted to do.
“If we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air,” Obama said in March of 2011. “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq… [R]egime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”
But repetition is exactly what happened. Attacks spread from the eastern city of Benghazi, where civilians were endangered, to the Libyan capital of Tripoli, 635 miles away. No one ever explained why the change in goal or who might succeed Gaddafi afterward.
During revolutionary-era Libya, no one in the upper ranks of the U.S. government seriously considered whether the newly created Transitional National Council, a rival government in rebel-held areas like Benghazi, could govern the oil-rich state. Nor did Clinton or top leaders ask about unintended consequences of an air campaign, especially if it successfully ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, according to the senior defense official who was part of the conversation at the time. And as the country was falling apart, it seems no one in the higher reaches of Clinton’s department took note. If they did, they did not take action.
As secretary of state, it was Clinton’s job to ask questions about the state of Libya, both before the intervention and after. She was secretary when the intervention began—and when the U.S. presence in Benghazi ended with a deadly attack. And while she held talks in the early months after Gaddafi’s death, Libya became largely a public afterthought. In the email caches released so far from her personal account, former adviser Sidney Blumenthal repeatedly kept Libya before Clinton, sharing his views of the situation, at the time contradicting the diplomats working for Clinton. Blumenthal, a longtime adviser to both Clinton and President Clinton, was not an expert on the region.
And yet, the day after the attack in Benghazi, Blumenthal drafted an email to Clinton that read like a State Department cable. He said his sources were those that had “direct access to the Libyan Transitional National Council, as well as the highest European Governments, and Western Intelligence and security services.” And those sources said the attack was the result of a protest “inspired by what many devout Libyans viewed as a sacrilegious internet video on the prophet Mohammed originating in America.” It’s a narrative that was quickly disproven.
Another instance of Blumenthal’s analysis going south came in April of 2012. Blumenthal assessed that the Muslim Brotherhood would do well in July elections. Chris Stevens, then the number two diplomat in Libya, disagreed. Blumenthal’s views were passed on to Stevens in an email with the subject line “Latest from HRC contact,” referring to Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Blumenthal was wrong, despite the high-level endorsement. The Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party won 10 percent of the vote.
Stevens was appointed ambassador in May 2012 and was one of the four killed in the Benghazi attack. He had supported the U.S. intervention in Libya and had built an unusually close relationship with Libyans, many of whom saw him as a friend. Stevens rejected two offers of additional security for himself and his staff as recently as the month leading up to the attack, leaning on his close relationships with residents there.
Of course, the administration was not alone in ignoring the mounting threats in Libya in the year leading up to the attack. Congress never held a hearing about Libya from the time U.S. intervention ended to the Sept. 11, 2012, death of Stevens, information officer Sean Smith, and CIA operatives Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Instead, many celebrated Libya as a success story of limited U.S. intervention despite obvious signs there of looming instability. The British consulate in Benghazi came under an attempted assassination attack the previous summer and other nations pulled out amid rising violence. The U.S. consulate in Benghazi suffered an improvised bomb attack around the time of the strike on the British. And there were early signs of a rising jihadist presence in the eastern city. In Tripoli, Sufi shrines were destroyed.
Defenders of the U.S. approach contend that the United States indeed had a moral obligation to help revolutionaries seeking to end a dictatorial regime. The United States and the coalition are not responsible for what the Libyans do with such a responsibility.
“It is not our failing because the Libyans started the uprisings. The Libyans formed the Transitional National Congress. They then called for international support in the form of a no-fly zone. The Arab League for the first time in its history called for a non-Arab state to intervene,” said Jason Pack, a researcher of Middle Eastern and world history who runs a website dedicated to analyzing Libya. “It would have been catastrophic for U.S. national standing to not intervene.”
In the months leading up to the attack, flags belonging to a jihadist group, Ansar al Sharia, appeared in Benghazi. Ansar al Sharia members also controlled security around certain government buildings, including the hospital that would try to save Stevens.
In that ensuing power vacuum, jihadists began claiming territory, making it difficult for the moderate government to control the country. By 2013, Libya’s oil production all but stopped as the nation plunged toward civil war and a state led by two rival governments on opposite ends of the country. Efforts to create a unity government have so far faltered. Benghazi, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising, became a terrorist haven. And today, many Libyans yearn for the return of Gaddafi, however dictatorial his regime was, because of the security that came with him.
As a failed state, Libya has become a way station for refugees around the world seeking passage to Europe by way of overcrowded, rickety boats whose boarding pass comes in the form of a bribe. Human traffickers now run the shores of Tripoli.
While European officials hoped their intervention would prevent a tide of refugees, it actually only accelerated it. Libya, with its ungoverned borders, has become a launching point for refugees from across Africa and across the Middle East. In 2014, 110,000 refugees arrived from Libya. And this year, that number is expected to reach 500,000, a byproduct of a failed state.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, the head of the latest of eight congressional committees on Benghazi, suggested in recent interviews that his committee would tackle key questions about the fall of Libya, saying he is the first to review emails from Clinton and the ambassador there. Thursday’s public hearing will offer insight on just how far back the committee will go.
But critics, Russia chief among them, argue that the whole affair was illegal and ill-considered. The UN resolution that authorized U.S. and NATO intervention was only to protect civilians, not topple a government. And whatever good came from toppling a strongman has been more than outweighed by the power vacuum exploited by Libya’s jihadists. Indeed, Russia said it began strikes in Syria on Sept. 30, in part, to keep Libya-style chaos from unfolding.
Obama may not have wanted another Iraq when he launched “Operation Odyssey Dawn.” But another Iraq is exactly what he and his administration got.
And to this day, Hillary Clinton says the invasion was the right call.
“Well, let’s remember what was going on,” she offered during the recent Democratic debate. “We had a murderous dictator, Gaddafi, who had American blood on his hands, as I’m sure you remember, threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people. We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words. And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, ‘We want you to help us deal with Gaddafi.’
“The Libyan people had a free election the first time since 1951. And you know what, they voted for moderates, they voted with the hope of democracy,” she added.
Clinton admitted that “there was turmoil” after the invasion. But she said the chaos was unleashed “because of the Arab Spring, because of a lot of other things.”
She never admitted she might have something to do with reaping the Libyan whirlwind.