Libya: It Was About Regime Change, and It Was a Disaster

Hillary Clinton was part of a campaign to mislead us about the purposes of the Libyan intervention.


Five years ago this week, the U.S. began its intervention in the Libyan revolts against Moammar Qaddafi. Hillary Clinton, likely Democratic presidential candidate and reasonably likely next president of these United States, had a lot to do with all that mess, being secretary of state at the time.

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In a detailed and damning look back on our little Libyan adventure and its aftermath in Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko looks at what Secretary Clinton thought about what had happened and her role in it. He notes that she very much sloughs over the time period when the clear purpose, from the U.S. perspective, went from "protect[ing] civilians in Libya" to overthrowing the regime. 

She has little to say about a U.S.-led NATO coalition's role in helping the rebels along and adding both to casualties at the time and enduring trouble and chaos five years later.

Zenko sees, with merit, that the the Libya story and would-be president Hillary Clinton's role in it is a valuable and informative "case study for the ways that supposedly limited interventions tend to mushroom into campaigns for regime change."

Obama started on March 28, 2011, assuring us it was all about "protect[ing] the Libyan people from immediate danger and to establish a no-fly zone.… Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." Various other administration officials echoed that in the coming weeks.

Then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, though, "told the New York Times last month that 'I can't recall any specific decision that said, 'Well, let's just take him out,' although at the time "'the fiction was maintained" that the goal was limited to disabling Colonel Qaddafi's command and control."

Zenko details that the actual pattern of NATO's strikes makes it hard to believe they weren't trying to kill Qaddafi pretty much from the beginning though it was denied straight-up by administration figures.

In fact, the NATO forces were not only not sticking to enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions but actively facilitating their violation when it came to supplying arms to the rebels, which was supposed to be a no-no.

In this sense, then, it was an American intervention that at least achieved its real goal, if not one worth the expenditure of U.S. treasure and reputation, and one we should have lived to regret. As Zenko wrote:

on Oct. 20, 2011, it was a U.S. Predator drone and French fighter aircraft that attacked a convoy of regime loyalists trying to flee Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte. The dictator was injured in the attack, captured alive, and then extrajudicially murdered by rebel forces.

This sort of lying to the American people about what our military is trying to do is a long tradition and ongoing to this day in terms of our essentially combat operations against ISIS. This sort of thing, this:

gradual accretion of troops, capabilities, arms transfers, and expanded military missions seemingly just "happens," because officials frame each policy step as normal and necessary. The reality is that, collectively, they represent a fundamentally larger and different intervention.

Clinton tried to show some warrior cojones with her famous "We came, we saw, he died" zinger. Clinton described that before an October 2015 hearing as "an expression of relief that the military mission undertaken by NATO and our other partners had achieved its end."

But as Zenko's article makes clear, that wasn't the end that we the people were told was being pursued. And Clinton's eager central role in such a game of tricking both U.S. and world opinion into not caring much about military actions by misleading us about their goals and intentions is something I hope voters don't forget.

I wrote on some larger issues involving the penumbra of misleading secrecy surrounding American foreign policy in "Secret Foreign Policy is Bad for Democracy." That's still quite true, even when the secrets are kept by Democratic presidential aspirants.

Reason TV on the Obama administration's tendency to wage wars that aren't "really wars."