Libya de­ba­cle un­der­mines Clin­ton’s for­eign pol­icy cre­den­tial

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will

— 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

WASH­ING­TON

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 sev­en­month 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 mem- bers 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 is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­post. com.

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