Evaluating Clinton’s Experience: The 2011 Libya Intervention

The front page of Sunday’s New York Times was dominated by a lengthy article (the first of two) about Hillary Clinton’s role in the 2011 decision to intervene in Libya. “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.” Indeed, there is no case more important if we want to understand how Clinton would conduct her foreign policy if elected President, aside from her decision to vote in favor of the 2003 Iraq War.

If you haven’t read the piece, I encourage you to do so. It paints a fairly accurate picture of how the United States decided to intervene in Libya: very hastily, without a clear understanding of the conflict on the ground, at the urging of European allies, and with Clinton’s support playing a pivotal role in pushing for the intervention. Robert Gates (then Secretary of Defense) claimed that Clinton’s support tipped the vote “51-49” in favor of the intervention and was a key factor in overcoming President Obama’s hesitation about the operation.

It just so happens that I wrote an entire chapter on the Libya intervention in my new book, Cheap Threats. The Times’ description of the run-up to the intervention is fairly accurate, but it makes some glaring omissions: there was no convincing evidence that the impending massacre of civilians in rebel-held Benghazi, which was used as the pretext for the UN resolution and the launch of the no-fly zone, would have occurred. Political scientist Alan Kuperman wrote an extremely important and convincing article[1] for Foreign Affairs making exactly this argument.  Leaving that issue aside, the intervention was initially sold to the US public as necessary to protect Libyan civilians. But in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s overthrow, we did absolutely nothing to stop the rebel forces from liquidating entire villages of people that had been loyal to Qaddafi’s regime, or to stop the competing factions from seizing and destroying Libyan infrastructure.[2] (It’s not surprising that this gets little attention from the Times given that it and most American media outlets devoted very little coverage to the violence that unfolded on the ground in Libya after Qaddafi’s overthrow—one had to look to European and Middle Eastern news outlets for this information after America’s attention went elsewhere. I await the second installment in the series to see whether these omissions will be rectified.) Even more ridiculous in the context of this “we must save Libyans” crusade is the fact that, around this time in early 2011, Bahrain was actually mowing down protesters in the street, not simply threatening to do so, but we never debated intervening in Bahrain because we have important military bases there. The point is not that we should have sent more force to pacify Libya (or Bahrain)—the point is that we could have and should have foreseen that our interference would destabilize both the country and the surrounding region.

It is clear from the article and from Clinton’s insistence that she wants to put boots on the ground to expand the campaign against IS in Syria, however, that the lesson she took away from the 2011 Libya intervention is not that we should have stayed out of it, but that we should have done more. In the summer of 2011, when rebel forces were gaining the upper hand against Qaddafi, she praised the intervention as a model of “smart power”[3]: “This is exactly the kind of world that I want to see where it’s not just the United States and everybody is standing on the sidelines while we bear the cost, while we bear the sacrifice.”

Except that we didn’t really sacrifice anything to make that intervention happen (other than the stability of North Africa). This is exactly the point I make in my book: the 2011 Libya intervention is a prime example of how the United States has developed a model for the use of military force that relies on precise, standoff strike technologies to minimize the human and political costs of using force—with the result that we have actually undermined our ability to wield force effectively. The Libya intervention was conducted entirely from the air and involved the extensive use of drones. Furthermore, the Obama administration asserted that it did not need Congressional approval for the operation because it was so limited—the lack of boots on the ground meant that it did not “count” as a war and thus it did not need Congressional approval. This is very troubling: once the Executive has asserted a right to a particular power in foreign policy, it is unlikely to be taken away. The next President can point to the Obama administration’s assertions to justify all manner of international action without the need for Congressional oversight.

Reading between the lines of the article, Clinton comes across as anything but “experienced” in this case: she rushed to push intervention in the face of very limited and conflicting intelligence about the situation on the ground in Libya, she allowed herself to be swayed about the coherence of Libya’s opposition by a very small number of men claiming to represent this opposition (recalling how the George W. Bush administration allowed itself to be duped by a single human source who fabricated information about the Iraqi regime in the run-up to war in 2003), and she pushed (despite objections from military officials and members of the State Department) to funnel arms to the fractured Libyan opposition—arms that are now in the hands of al Qaeda and IS and helping to sustain insurgencies across North Africa. Make no mistake: this intervention was a disaster and one whose consequences we will continue to suffer in the coming years—if not the coming decades. It was a disaster not because we didn’t send enough forces to get the job done, but because we never should have gotten involved in the first place.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, then director of policy planning at the State Department, described exactly what type of president Clinton would be: “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.”  How many Iraqs and Libyas are we going to “try” before we learn that regime change is a foolhardy endeavor that inflicts massive suffering on civilian populations (regardless of how precise our weapons are) and unleashes far-reaching consequences over which we have limited control?



[1] Alan J. Kuperman, “Obama’s Libya Debacle: How a Well-Meaning Intervention Ended in Failure,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2015).

[2] Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was a major proponent of intervention in 2011, admits that “We did not try to protect civilians on Qaddafi’s side,” but the article does not follow up on this reality.

[3] A term totally devoid of meaning, despite its buzzword status around the Beltway.