Testifying before the House Select Committee on Benghazi last Thursday, Hillary Clinton bristled when Peter Roskam, a Republican congressman from Illinois, described the consequences of overthrowing Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. "After your plan, things in Libya today are a disaster," Roskam said.
Clinton disagreed, saying the U.S. military intervention that replaced Qaddafi with chaos—an operation she championed as secretary of state—was an exemplary use of "smart power." If so, I'd hate to see what dumb power looks like. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's stubborn defense of an elective war that went terribly wrong represents a political opportunity for her Republican opponent, but only if he does not share her inclination to shoot first and ask questions later.
That's a big if. "America must lead in a dangerous world," Clinton declared last week. "We certainly have to be the world's leader," agrees former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading contender for the Republican nomination.
According to Bush, the problem with intervening in Libya's civil war was not that it had nothing to do with defending our country, that it was illegal without congressional authorization, or that it was undertaken without any thought about unintended consequences. No, Bush says, the problem was that the Obama administration lacked "a strategy beyond just airstrikes."
Not so, says Clinton. "We knew that Libya's transition from the brutal dictatorship of Qaddafi, which basically destroyed or undermined every institution in the country, would be challenging, and we planned accordingly," she testified last week. "We were doing everything we could think of to help Libya succeed."
Clinton bragged that "we were very much involved in helping them provide their first parliamentary elections," which was "quite an accomplishment," especially since "they voted for moderates." Unfortunately, "much of what we offered was difficult for the Libyans to understand how to accept," and "the volatile security environment in Libya"—featuring "a weak government, extremist groups, [and] rampant instability"—"complicated our efforts."
What Clinton refuses to acknowledge is that U.S. intervention created those conditions. Bush's response is not to avoid such foolhardy meddling but to execute it better. He is sure that if he had been in charge, things would have turned out differently.
Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who is vying with Bush for the Republican nomination, is in an even worse position to criticize Clinton's role in the Libyan disaster. Rubio, a vocal supporter of overthrowing Qaddafi in 2011, blames the current situation in Libya, which he describes as "a growing haven for the Islamic State," on "the Obama administration’s 'lead from behind' approach."
By contrast, two other senators seeking the GOP nomination—Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas—have criticized the Libyan intervention in a way that suggests they would be more cautious. "Every time we have toppled a secular dictator," Paul observed during last month's debate, "we have gotten chaos, the rise of radical Islam, and we're more at risk."
Cruz had a similar take in a Meet the Press interview this month, saying "Hillary Clinton's disastrous Libya policy" resulted in "absolute chaos" and a "war zone where jihadists are battling back and forth." Like Paul, he said invading Iraq was a mistake for similar reasons and that both experiences should chasten Clinton and other advocates of more aggressive intervention in Syria. "We have no business sticking our nose in that civil war," Cruz said.
But Clinton, who voted for the Iraq war as a senator in 2002 and did not admit her mistake until last year, seems to be a slow learner. "When America is absent, especially from unstable places, there are consequences," she said last week. "Extremism takes root, aggressors seek to fill the vacuum, and security everywhere is threatened, including here at home."
As the Libyan debacle shows, these consequences also can occur when America is present. If the Republicans nominate someone who recognizes that possibility, the next presidential election may include a real debate about foreign policy.
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