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Benghazi Won't Stick to Hillary Clinton, But the Disastrous Libyan Intervention Should

Kevin Lamarque / AFP / Getty Images

Republicans are still trying to use the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, to sink Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions. Last week, the congressional committee investigating the attacks subpoenaed Sidney Blumenthal, who sent memos on Libya to then-Secretary of State Clinton while he was both employed by the Clinton Foundation and advising businessmen angling for contracts from the country's transitional government. Clinton herself has agreed to answer questions from the committee, though it’s unclear when the hearing will take place. 

The alleged scandals aren't sticking—not beyond the right-wing crowd, anyway. Perhaps Republicans should choose another tack, as one aspect of Clinton's tenure at the State Department does deserve more scrutiny: the disastrous intervention in Libya.

We came, we saw, he died,” Clinton laughed after learning of dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s death. She's probably less triumphant today, given that Libya is now a failing stateGOP presidential aspirant Rand Paul and the Washington Post have even, for different reasons, called it “Hillary’s war.” That's a misnomer; she was far from alone in supporting it, and others played a similar role in the decision to topple Gaddafi. Yet some of the mistakes made in Libya fall primarily on Clinton's shoulders.

Clinton and other Western officials sold NATO’s intervention in Libya as a humanitarian effort to stop the imminent slaughter of civilians in Benghazi. “Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled. … The cries would be, ‘Why did the United States not do anything?’” Clinton said in an interview in March of 2011. It was the argument President Barack Obama would also use to justify the no-fly zone put forward in U.N. Resolution 1973, which called for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. Several reports have noted the pivotal role played by Clinton in convincing the president to support the intervention, which was also strongly backed by then-U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, then serving at the National Security Council, as well as then-Senator John Kerry, who invoked Rwanda. (The skeptics, who doubted that vital U.S. interests were at stake, included then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other top national security officials.)

The problem with this rationale, according to members of the intelligence community who spoke with the right-wing Washington Times in a series of stories earlier this year, is that no solid intelligence existed to back up Clinton’s statements of the impending bloodbath in Benghazi. U.S. officials said that the Pentagon believed “Gadhafi was unlikely to risk world outrage by inflicting large civilian casualties as he cracked down on the rebels based in Benghazi,” according to the reports.

The Times's story must be taken with a grain of salt, considering its provenance, but some of the reporting draws on recorded phone calls and other material that is difficult to dispute. And those reported intelligence assessments, which contradict the picture painted by Clinton and the Obama administration at the time of the intervention, align with analysis and reports made by scholars, conflict analysts, and human rights groups. “Was the threat to civilian life hyped up? It was probably exaggerated by Western officials,” Issandr El Amrani, a journalist and analyst who oversees International Crisis Group's (ICG) North Africa Project, said in an interview. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also didn’t find strong evidence suggesting an impending slaughter by the time NATO intervened. “Our assessment was that up until that point, the casualty figures—around 350 protesters killed by indiscriminate fire of government security forces—didn’t rise to the level of indicating that a genocide or genocide-like mass atrocities were imminent,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division. Based on HRW’s figures, Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas pointed out that less than 3 percent of the 949 people wounded in the city of Misrata were women in the first two months of the conflict, suggesting—despite the many horrible crimes committed—security forces did not simply indiscriminately target civilians, another rebuke of the Rwanda comparison.

“What was decided was to declare Gaddafi guilty in advance of a massacre of defenceless civilians and instigate the process of destroying his regime and him (and his family) by way of punishment of a crime he was yet to commit, and actually unlikely to commit,” wrote Hugh Roberts, a scholar at Tufts University and head of the ICG North Africa Project at the time, “and to persist with this process despite his repeated offers to suspend military action.”

Of course, the threat of any civilian death is a legitimate concern, and “there was no reason to believe [the regime] wouldn’t get nasty,” El Amrani said. After all, Gaddafi brutally massacred more than 1,000 unarmed prisoners in 1996. But human rights violations and even a regime’s killing of its “own people” are generally tolerated by the U.S., particularly when an ally is responsible. “We have a killer in Egypt next door who killed far more protesters than Gaddafi ever did, who’s being rewarded with U.S. arms. So I don’t think the U.S. has a consistent standard,” Whitson said.

Perhaps more questionable than the wisdom of the intervention was its execution. “The real question is why they did the kind of intervention they did, which was not just to protect civilians but regime change,” El Amrani said. “It is not a controversial thing to say NATO members overstepped their mandate.”

In March 2011, after the passage of U.N. Resolution 1973, Obama said that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” but the following month he declared that the “bombing continues until Gaddafi goes.” And while the administration and the State Department declared that the Libyan dictator had to step down, the evidence suggests that a military defeat—and not negotiated solution—was the only option the U.S. was pursuing.

“One serious, official track of negotiation was that of the African Union,” El Amrani told me. As the AU commission chairperson, Jean Ping of Gabon had led an effort to negotiate a political transition in Libya that was thwarted, he says, by the intervention. “Why were we not given a chance to implement our plan that Gaddafi had accepted?” he wrote last year in Le Monde Diplomatique. That plan was for Gaddafi to go into exile, just as the former dictator of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had done during that country’s Arab Spring uprising. “The chances that Gaddafi would have left Libya for one of the African countries were high,” Mehari Taddele Maru, an analyst on African Union affairs, told me. The AU strongly opposed military means of solving what it viewed as a political problem in Libya. But the AU’s roadmap was killed by Western powers.

This wasn’t the only track that Clinton’s State Department failed to pursue. Tapes obtained by the Times showed that Pentagon officials became so frustrated with Clinton’s Libya policy that they maintained their own line of communication with Gaddafi regime, even after Clinton had allegedly ordered them to cease such contact. “Everything I am getting from the State Department is that they do not care about being part of this. Secretary Clinton does not want to negotiate at all,” a Pentagon intelligence asset told Gaddafi’s son, Saif, in one of the phone calls. Former Representative Dennis Kucinich had also made contact with Libyan officials, but he said he was ignored by the State Department and White House.

At a recent event, I asked Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who ran the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations for several years and currently heads the ICG, about where the Libya mission might have gone wrong. “There could have been much more effort during the campaign to negotiate an exit for Gaddafi,” he responded. “That was not really attempted. There was no interest in that. I think that was wrong.” 

If the intelligence didn’t suggest an impending massacre and a negotiated solution wasn’t being seriously pursued, what was driving the intervention?

El Amrani thinks it was a test case for NATO’s continued relevance. Supporters of intervention, El Amrani said, thought Libya could serve as an example for the type of interventions that the international community failed to undertake in Bosnia and Rwanda in the '90s. Both Rice and Power were strong supporters of R2P (Responsibility to Protect), a principle accepted by all U.N. Member States in 2005 that says the international community may intervene militarily in a state—without its permission—to prevent mass atrocities. “It’s almost like they wanted a model for R2P,” El Amrani said. “For these liberal internationalists, there was an ideological element that this was a test case for this kind of intervention.”

But major figures in the intervention may have had different motivations. Libya also occurred in the context of the Arab Spring, and there was a sense, as reported in a piece by Michael Hastings for Rolling Stone, that the U.S.—which was caught flat-footed in Tunisia and Egypt—wanted to get ahead of the curve. In her memoir, Hard Choices, Clinton wrote about how the Arab League’s backing of military action heavily influenced her decision to intervene, as did a March meeting with rebel opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril. And at the time, as Whitson of HRW pointed out, there was “the greatest international consensus on acting against an abusive leader than anywhere else in the world. “At that moment in time, the U.S. wanted to be on right side,” Whitson told me.

Four years later, the situation in Libya could hardly be worse. The Islamic State (ISIS) has established a presence within the country’s chaotic borders where two competing “governments” have vied for dominance. Militias that were armed to overthrow Gaddafi have wreaked havoc. Neighboring countries still feel the strain of hosting refugees, and the region is awash in weapons.

Clinton doesn't bear all the responsibility for this. Indeed, many establishment politicians are unable to offer sincere criticisms of her on Libya: The liberal interventionists of the Obama administration backed the war, as did Republican hawks. This leaves the far-left and libertarian-ish conservatives to criticize her—and on this issue, at least, they're right.