Hillary Clinton took credit for the U.S. intervention in Libya, but she will never take the blame. As a detailed, damning new account in The New York Times shows, the former secretary of state was indeed instrumental in pushing President Obama to pick sides in Libya's civil war by bombing longtime dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces and arming his opponents. But as the Times also shows, her warmongering is nothing to be proud of, although she bragged about it in 2011 and continues to portray its results as a paradigmatic example of "smart power."
Robert M. Gates, the secretary of defense at the time, describes Obama's decision to intervene as a "51-49" proposition, adding, "I've always thought that Hillary's support for the broader mission in Libya put the president on the 51 side of the line for a more aggressive approach." Given the huge practical and moral risks of getting involved in a civil war 5,000 miles away, you'd think the standard of proof would be a little bit stronger than a preponderance of the evidence, especially since Qaddafi clearly posed no threat to the United States. "He was not a threat to us anywhere," Gates says. "He was a threat to his own people, and that was about it." That really should have been the end of the analysis, unless you think the Defense Department's role extends beyond defense.
Clinton clearly does. "She's very careful and reflective," claims Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton's director of policy planning at the State Department. "But when the choice is between action and inaction, and you've got risks in either direction, which you often do, she'd rather be caught trying." This bias in favor of action, regardless of whether the "risks" have anything to do with U.S. national security, is anything but careful. It is the very definition of recklessness. At any given moment, there are myriad situations around the world in which the U.S. government might intervene militarily to prevent injustice, oppression, or the slaughter of civilians (the official justification for fighting Qaddafi). If that is the U.S. government's job, as Clinton seems to assume, and if there is no distinction between making bad things happen and letting them happen, which she also seems to believe, a preference for intervention is a recipe for never-ending mischief.
Here is how the Times sums up the consequences of Clinton's desire to be "caught trying" in Libya:
The consequences would be more far-reaching than anyone imagined, leaving Libya a failed state and a terrorist haven…
Libya, with a population smaller than that of Tennessee, poses an outsize security threat to the region and beyond, calling into question whether the intervention prevented a humanitarian catastrophe or merely helped create one of a different kind.
The looting of Colonel Qaddafi's vast weapons arsenals during the intervention has fed the Syrian civil war, empowered terrorist and criminal groups from Nigeria to Sinai, and destabilized Mali, where Islamist militants stormed a Radisson hotel in November and killed 20 people.
A growing trade in humans has sent a quarter-million refugees north across the Mediterranean, with hundreds drowning en route. A civil war in Libya has left the country with two rival governments, cities in ruins and more than 4,000 dead.
Amid that fighting, the Islamic State has built its most important outpost on the Libyan shore, a redoubt to fall back upon as it is bombed in Syria and Iraq. With the Pentagon saying the Islamic State's fast-growing force now numbers between 5,000 and 6,500 fighters, some of Mr. Obama's top national security aides are pressing for a second American military intervention in Libya.
These were the risks of acting, none of which Clinton foresaw. "We came, we saw, he died!" she gloated after Qaddafi was captured and killed. "Two days before," the Times notes, "Mrs. Clinton had taken a triumphal tour of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and for weeks top aides had been circulating a 'ticktock' that described her starring role in the events that had led to this moment. It was a brag sheet for a cabinet member eyeing a presidential race, and the Clinton team's eagerness to claim credit for her prompted eye-rolling at the White House and the Pentagon. Some joked that to hear her aides tell it, she had practically called in the airstrikes herself."
Testifying before Congress last October, after the disastrous fallout from the intervention had become impossible to ignore, Clinton was more generous. "At the end of the day, this was the president's decision," she said. But she continued to insist that toppling Qaddafi exemplified "smart power at its best," while reserving judgment on the long-term consequences.
In short, Clinton, who did not publicly regret her vote for the Iraq war until 2014, will not admit that intervening in Libya was a mistake, making it impossible for her to learn from it. The Times puts it a little more gently:
This is the story of how a woman whose Senate vote for the Iraq war may have doomed her first presidential campaign nonetheless doubled down and pushed for military action in another Middle Eastern country. As she once again seeks the White House, campaigning in part on her experience as the nation's chief diplomat, an examination of the intervention she championed shows her at what was arguably her moment of greatest influence as secretary of state. It is a working portrait rich with evidence of what kind of president she might be, and especially of her expansive approach to the signal foreign-policy conundrum of today: whether, when and how the United States should wield its military power in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Clinton's reckless interventionism should hurt her with voters but probably won't. Of the three Republicans most likely to face her in November, Donald Trump seems most inclined to use the issue against her, but who knows what his views will be this fall? Ted Cruz has criticized the intervention in Libya but sounds decidedly less cautious about Syria, while Marco Rubio is at least as "expansive" as Clinton when it comes to finding excuses for war.