I saw a few days ago that President Obama has said on several occasions lately that the only foreign policy decision he regrets is the US intervention in Libya. This was the intervention which he said at the time the US was leading from behind. His regret seems to be two-fold: first that we undertook to lead it from behind without having thought through the endgame; second that the Europeans didn’t follow through on the internal political and economic development needs of a Libya without Qaddafi.
This interests me for two reasons. The first is personal—I served in Libya in 2007-2008, not long enough to claim to be an expert, but long enough to realize clearly the extent of Qaddafi’s destruction of all the institutions of state to the point that he was the equivalent of a non-accountable chief of a village, but the village was a country. Nothing could happen in Libya without his approval or instigation. The second is that the Democratic party front-runner for the party’s nomination to be the next President, Hilary Clinton, clearly doesn’t share the President’s discomfort about the Libyan intervention, and she was his Secretary of State at the time. In fact, Mrs Clinton seems to believe that not only was it the right thing to do, but its unsatisfactory aftermath so far can be a guide to intelligent and effective US involvement in the Middle East in the next few decades.
The domestic politics of this divergence are tricky. Mrs Clinton is running on Mr Obama’s record, on a platform that promises a continuation of his policies and programs. On the domestic policy side, there is no incompatibility. She will focus in the general election on his economic achievements, the greatest of which was probably an interventionist domestic policy which avoided a serious depression (which might have been reminiscent of the 1930s) and after several difficult years the resurgence of that economy and of important parts of the manufacturing sector to levels of production and job creation that come close to the boom years that preceded the bust. And, she will promise to continue to improve his other notable achievement, the Affordable Care Act (called “Obamacare” by the Republicans).
The problem not foreseen was the Libyans
But the foreign policy of her campaign will have to be more nuanced. She has said in this campaign that she believes the President made the right decision on the Libyan intervention. In a campaign which is based on the idea that her administration would be almost a linear continuation of the Obama administration, she is unlikely to contradict the President directly in his repentance of the Libyan intervention, and more likely when she addresses the Libyan issue, her focus will be on what might have been and how that informs her own vision of US Middle East policy.
The Democrats, of course, are likely to go on the attack when it comes to the Middle East, pointing out that much of the chaos that now obtains throughout the region was the result of George W Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003—a classic example, of course, of not thinking through the consequences and the endgame (which has not come yet). I believe most Americans now believe the Iraq war to have been a horrendous mistake, and this argument will have resonance with many voters. The Republican response at this point (which assumes Mrs Clinton will be the Democratic nominee) is to tie her specifically to the Middle East chaos and the rise of ISIS through Libya – she strongly supported the intervention, which they will say triggered the rise of ISIS – and then use the inadequate follow up to the intervention to claim she sent Americans into harms without adequate protection, linking this to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.
I believe the argument for the intervention was quite clear and compelling. It avoided what was looking to be another Syria — a murderous civil war that might have dragged on for a long time and in which hundreds of thousands would be killed and/or displaced. (The migrant crisis would be worse than it is.) Those who argued against the intervention at the time either didn’t believe Qaddafi’s threat to kill all the rebels like dogs, or didn’t care. I knew enough about Qaddafi to believe every word, and at the time, so did President Obama and Secretary Clinton, as well as the European leaders who led the charge. The European leaders, after all, knew the extent of his megalomania, having seen it only a couple of years earlier when Qaddafi camped out in his Bedouin tent in the centers of their capitals on his European coming out tour. With Rwanda and Bosnia fresh in their memories, and watching the looming Syrian catastrophe develop, how else could they have reacted?
Does this mean that we should have intervened earlier and more forcefully in Syria? Not necessarily. Each case is sui generis, and Syria was, in fact a much more complicated society. But Mrs Clinton is quick to go back to the immediate post-intervention period in Libya when things looked promising. The lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan were incorporated in plans to help a Libya free of Qaddafi to build institutions from scratch (there were effectively none left after Qaddafi), disarm and demobilize the militias, and help rebuild the society. Things started well with the elections of 2012, in which the Libyans voted for moderate parties.
The problem not foreseen was the Libyans. The new leaders could not deliver, and the offers of assistance went unaccepted. And most importantly, the Libyans refused to consider an international security force that was on offer. In effect, the Libyans ruled out an effective international program to help them back on their feet by refusing any international security forces. Even the small initial UN security force, ready to go almost as soon as Qaddafi fell, was ruled out. And without security, most of the other assistance was impossible to deliver. Obviously the UN and the intervening Western countries were not going to invade Libya to save the Libyans from themselves. Thus, in a sense, the Libyans are alone responsible for the failed aftermath and the state of near anarchy that obtains there now.
The other unexpected block was US politics—the vicious partisan attack on Clinton and the Obama administration after the tragic death of Ambassador Stephens. This came just before the 2012 election and effectively froze US policy on Libya. It is not clear that the outcome would have been any different given the Libyan attitudes, but any chance of the US playing an effective and mediating role ended with that frenzied partisan attack.
Chris Stevens was my deputy during my tenure in Tripoli. We became good friends. I knew him well enough to say that he would have been horrified at how his name has been used to undermine policy that was intended to bring peace and stability to that benighted country. Moreover, he was a superb and courageous officer and brilliant in his ability to relate to and work with people of the Middle East. I wonder sometimes if Chris did not, in some way, epitomize the kind foreign policy, and certainly Middle East policy, that Mrs Clinton seems to believe in. He certainly believed that the US has long-term interests in the region that warrant patient diplomacy and building even more expertise in the region, and that effective foreign policy means taking risks that sometimes can be dangerous. I never saw any illusions in him that the US could, or should, do it all, but that we could lead in developing consistent multilateral mechanisms for investing in inclusive institutions in these countries while eschewing reliance on local strong men.
The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia