Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders offered competing narratives on the 2011 U.S.-backed intervention in Libya at last night's Democratic presidential debate in Brooklyn, hosted by CNN. Last week, President Obama mentioned the aftermath of the intervention as the "worst mistake" of his presidency, making engagement of it last night inevitable given that Clinton served as his secretary of state at the time.
Obama's comments were new—he had not previously acknowledged the sub-optimal aftermath of the intervention. Wolf Blitzer, the moderator of the Brooklyn debate, asked Clinton whether as secretary of state she was "responsible" for "not preparing for Libya" after the removal of Col. Qaddafi.
"I think we did a great deal to help the Libyan people after Qaddafi's demise," Clinton insisted, pointing to the two elections held in Libya as evidence of American success, and boasting that the U.S. got rid (or, more accurately, helped Libya get rid) of Qaddafi's chemical weapons stockpile. The chemical weapons claim is misleading—Qaddafi began the process of disarmament in 2003, when he unilaterally admitted that Libya had a nuclear and chemical weapons program. It was possible to conclude that process without allowing European powers to convince America into a war in which it had no national security interests.
Moreover, the U.S. and its allies didn't do much in post-war Libya to prevent the spread of more conventional weapons in Libya's stockpile to countries throughout the region. A United Nations panel of experts found in 2014 that arms from Libya had found their way to places as far as Nigeria and Syria, fueling conflicts there. The post-war spread of arms and weapons also fueled conflicts in places where there was no conflict before, like Mali, which USAID had called "one of the most enlightened democracies in Africa" as recently as 2012.
Sanders, for his part, pointed out that as Obama's secretary of state, Clinton "led the effect" for regime change in Libya. "And this is the same type of mentality that supported the war in Iraq," Sanders continued.
"Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein are brutal, brutal murdering thugs," Sanders said. "No debate about that. But what we have got to do and what the president was saying is we didn't think thoroughly about what happens the day after you get rid of these dictators."
"Regime change often has unintended consequences in Iraq and in Libya right now," Sanders continued, "where ISIS has a very dangerous foothold. And I think if you studied the whole history of American involvement in regime change, you see that quite often."
Clinton responded by pointing out that Sanders voted for a resolution condemning the systemic human rights abuses in Libya and "demanding democratic reforms."
"And that's exactly what we did," Clinton said of the resolution. Sanders retorted by pointing out the vote was made by unanimous consent. This is misleading—Sanders didn't just accede to unanimous consent, he was one of 10 co-sponsors of the resolution.
There were other resolutions considered by Congress during the Libya war, including substantive efforts that sought to defund a war that had never won Congressional approval. Sanders did not participate in those efforts to stop the war and to assert Congress' role in decisions of war.
While Sanders' acknowledgement of the unintended consequences of U.S. foreign policy is a welcome addition to a mainstream debate that's been lacking that kind of insight, there's reason to be skeptical about how much Sanders actually understands the concept of unintended consequences. Sanders has supported a more aggressive posture vis a vis Russia as well as Iran. There are unintended consequences to inserting the U.S. into situations where it has no vested national security interest, as well as unintended consequences to favoring undemocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia over undemocratic regimes like Iran instead of striving for free trade and friendly relations with all countries.
Clinton dug deeper. She insisted European and Arab powers urged the U.S. to intervene in Libya out of "great fear of what chaos in Syria would do to them." But protests in Syria started in earnest in March 2011, the same month the U.S. intervention in Libya started. An armed insurgency did not begin to coalesce in Syria until the summer.
Seeking to avoid any responsibility for U.S. failures in Libya despite her role as secretary of state when the interventionist U.S. policy toward Libya was implemented, Clinton also shifted her portion of the blame to President Obama.
"The decision was the president's," Clinton insisted. "Did I do the due diligence? Did I talk to everybody I could talk to? Did I visit every capitol and then report back to the president? Yes, I did."
"That's what a secretary of state does," Clinton explained. "But at the end of the day, those are the decisions that are made by the president to in any way use American military power, and the president made that decision and, yes, we did try without success because of the Libyans' obstruction to our efforts, but we did try and we will continue to try to help the Libyan people."
Those obstructions include Libya's transitional government declining to permit the stationing of foreign troops in its country. The president is the decider (something Democrats mocked George W. Bush for saying when he was president) and he relies on his Cabinet as advisers, Clinton's role.
Clinton has consistently failed to take responsibility for Libya or to offer a critique of the failures in Libya that don't rely on complaining that the Libyan people didn't do exactly what the U.S. wanted, as if that were a possibility. That makes her unqualified to be president, even though bashing "Wall Street" gets more currency within the Democratic base than engaging the "military-industrial complex" and the policies and decisions that lead the U.S. to perpetual war that both major parties are responsible for.