Libya debacle undermines Clinton's foreign policy credential
Republican peculiarities in this political season are so numerous and lurid that insufficient attention is being paid to this: The probable Democratic nominee's principal credential, her service as secretary of state, is undermined by a debacle of remarkable dishonesty.
Hillary Clinton's supposedly supreme presidential qualification is not her public prominence, which is derivative from her marriage, or her unremarkable tenure in a similarly derivative Senate seat. Rather, her supposed credential is her foreign policy mastery. Well.
She cannot be blamed for Vladimir Putin's criminality or, therefore, for the failure of her "reset" with Russia, which was perhaps worth trying. She cannot be blamed for the many defects of the Iran nuclear agreement, which was a presidential obsession. And she cannot be primarily blamed for the calamities of Iraq, Syria and the Islamic State, which were incubated before her State Department tenure. Libya, however, was what is known in tennis as an "unforced error," and Clinton was, with President Obama, its co-author.
On March 28, 2011, nine days after the seven-month attack on Libya began and 10 days after saying it would last "days, not weeks," Obama gave the nation televised assurance that "the task that I assigned our forces [is] to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger and to establish a no-fly zone." He said that U.S. forces would play only a "supporting role" in what he called a "NATO-based" operation, although only eight of NATO's 28 members participated and the assault could not have begun without U.S. assets. Obama added: "Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."
The next day, a Clinton deputy repeated this to a Senate committee. And then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the time that no vital U.S. interest was at stake. Recently, he told The New York Times (Feb. 27, 2016) that "the fiction was maintained" that the goal was to cripple Moammar Gadhafi's ability to attack other Libyans. This was supposedly humanitarian imperialism implementing "R2P," the "responsibility to protect." Perhaps as many as — many numbers were bandied — 10,000 Libyans. R2P did not extend to protecting the estimated 200,000 Syrians that have been killed since 2011 by Bashar Assad's tanks, artillery, bombers, barrel bombs and poison gas.
Writing for Foreign Policy online, Micah Zenko, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that "just hours into the intervention, Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from a British submarine stationed in the Mediterranean Sea struck an administrative building in [Gadhafi's] Bab al-Azizia compound, less than 50 yards away from the dictator's residence." A senior military official carefully insisted "[Gadhafi's] not on a targeting list." This was sophistry in the service of cynicism: For months, places he might be were on targeting lists.
The pretense was that this not-really-NATO operation, with the United States "supporting" it, was merely to enforce U.N. resolutions about protecting Libyans from Gadhafi. Zenko, however, argues that the coalition "actively chose not to enforce" the resolution prohibiting arms transfers to either side in the civil war. While a senior NATO military official carefully said "I have no information about" arms coming into Libya, and another carefully said that no violation of the arms embargo "has been reported," Zenko writes that "Egypt and Qatar were shipping advanced weapons to rebel groups the whole time, with the blessing of the Obama administration."
On May 24, 2011, NATO released a public relations video showing sailors from a Canadian frigate, supposedly enforcing the arms embargo, boarding a rebel tugboat laden with arms. The video's narrator says: "NATO decides not to impede the rebels and to let the tugboat proceed." Zenko writes, "A NATO surface vessel stationed in the Mediterranean to enforce an arms embargo did exactly the opposite, and NATO was comfortable posting a video demonstrating its hypocrisy."
On Oct. 20, 2011, Clinton, while visiting Afghanistan, was told that insurgents, assisted by a U.S. Predator drone, had caught and slaughtered Gadhafi. She quipped: "We came, we saw, he died." She later said that her words expressed "relief" that the mission "had achieved its end."
Oh, so this military adventure was, after all, history's most protracted and least surreptitious assassination. Regime change was deliberately accomplished by the determined decapitation of the old regime, and Libyans are now living in the result — a failed state.
Stopping in Libya en route to Afghanistan two days before Gadhafi's death, Clinton said, "I am proud to stand here on the soil of a free Libya." If you seek her presidential credential, look there.
George Will's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.