Even critics understate how catastrophically bad the Hillary Clinton-led NATO bombing of Libya was
The New York Times published two lengthy pieces this week detailing Hillary Clinton’s role in the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya. Both are important documents, and provide much insight into how, as secretary of state for the Obama administration, Clinton played a uniquely hands-on role in the war.
Sec. Clinton pressured a wary President Obama to join France and the U.K. in the war, the Times reported. Vice President Biden, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, among others, opposed the war effort. Numerous government officials recalled that her hawkish enthusiasm was decisive in the “51-49 decision.”
The Times spoke of “Clinton’s deep belief in America’s power to do good in the world,” but did not stress that this belief is rooted in an aggressive militarism. It did quote French President Sarkozy, who fondly remembered how the secretary of state “was tough, she was bullish,” but the Times’ reporting understated Clinton’s belligerence.
At 13,000 words in length combined, the articles are important contributions to the historical record. Yet although they are critical of Clinton and her leadership in the conflict, they fail to acknowledge the crimes of U.S.-backed rebel groups, and ultimately underestimate just how disastrous the war was, just how hawkish Hillary is and just how significant this will be for the future of the United States — not to mention the future of Libya and its suffering people.
The U.S. president does not have as much control over economic and social issues as many pundits, analysts and even voters often insist. One must not forget that the head of state does not control the Congress or the judiciary. But the president does have enormous power when it comes to international affairs, diplomacy and war. This makes foreign policy one of the most crucial issues in any presidential campaign.
Clinton’s leadership in the catastrophic war in Libya should ergo constantly be at the forefront of any discussion of the presidential primary.
Throughout the campaign, Clinton has tried to have her cake and eat it too. She has flaunted her leadership in the war as a sign of her supposed foreign policy experience, yet, at the same moment, strived to distance herself from the disastrous results of said war.
Today, Libya is in ruins. The seven months of NATO bombing effectively destroyed the government and left behind a political vacuum. Much of this has been filled by extremist groups.
Millions of Libyans live without a formal government. The internationally recognized government only controls the eastern part of the country. Rivaled extremist Islamist groups have seized much of the country.
Downtown Benghazi, a once thriving city, is now in ruins. Ansar al-Sharia, a fundamentalist Salafi militia that is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., now controls large chunks of it. ISIS has made Libya home to its largest so-called “caliphate” outside of Iraq and Syria.
Thousands of Libyans have been killed, and this violent chaos has sparked a flood of refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Libyan civilians have fled, often on dangerous smuggling boats. The U.N. estimates more than 400,000 people have been displaced.
A disjointed peace process, mediated by the U.N. and other countries, drags on, with no signs of the war ending anytime soon.
Hillary has, understandably, said little of these consequences. Yet, in debate after debate, with her call for more aggression on Syria and Iran, Clinton has only continued to demonstrate that she is an unabashed war hawk.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, looking back, the facts show that she did not just push for and lead the war in Libya; she even went out of her way to derail diplomacy.
Little-discussed secret audio recordings released in early 2015 reveal how top Pentagon officials, and even one of the most progressive Democrats in Congress, were so wary of Clinton’s warmongering that they corresponded with the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in hopes of pursuing some form of diplomacy.
Qaddafi’s son Seif wanted to negotiate a ceasefire with the U.S. government, opening up communications with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Clinton later intervened and asked the Pentagon to stop talking to the Qaddafi regime.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich wrote a letter to Clinton and Obama in August 2011, warning against the war. “I have been contacted by an intermediary in Libya who has indicated that President Muammar Gadhafi is willing to negotiate an end to the conflict under conditions which would seem to favor Administration policy,” the Democratic lawmaker said. His plea was ignored.
A Pentagon intelligence official told Seif Qaddafi that his messages were falling on deaf ears. “Everything I am getting from the State Department is that they do not care about being part of this,” he explained.
“Secretary Clinton does not want to negotiate at all,” the U.S. intelligence official added.
And not negotiate is indeed what she did. In fact, after Qaddafi was brutally killed — sodomized with a bayonet by rebels — Clinton gloated live on TV, “We came, we saw, he died!”
The Pentagon’s correspondence with Libya before and during the war has rarely been mentioned in media reports (it is not discussed in either of the two New York Times pieces) since the Washington Times originally reported it.
The irony in the media coverage of Libya is that the right-wing media, which tends to be more pro-war, has actually been more careful and diligent in its assessment of Clinton’s legacy in Libya. In a dogmatic bipartisan political system, perhaps these kinds of double standards have come to be expected.
Those to the left of the Democratic Party certainly took notice too, nonetheless. Jacobin, a firmly leftist magazine, published one of the most careful and scathing critiques of Clinton’s role in the war. Journalist and author David Mizner meticulously detailed the uncomfortable facts in a piece appropriately titled “Worse Than Benghazi.”
Hillary’s war in Libya is the real Benghazi scandal. As Salon has previously reported, mere hours after Clinton’s day-long Benghazi interrogation by Republicans in October, at least six Libyans were killed and dozens more were wounded when militants in Benghazi fired rockets at a protest against a U.N. proposal for a unity government.
Benghazi the city remains roiled in violence, and, in the words of the Associated Press, “shattered.”
In “Worse Than Benghazi,” Mizner shows how many of the excuses, especially the allegation — spread forcefully by Clinton — that Qaddafi was on the verge of carrying out genocide against his people, were largely baseless.
U.S. intelligence officials told The Washington Times that the government had “gathered no specific evidence of an impending genocide in Libya in spring 2011, undercutting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s primary argument for using the U.S. military to remove Col. Moammar Gadhafi from power, an event that has left his country in chaos.”
The New York Times’ lengthy stories do call “into question whether the intervention prevented a humanitarian catastrophe or merely helped create one of a different kind.” They do also point out that Human Rights Watch reports later showed that media claims about Qaddafi’s repression of protesters, which were used to sell the war to the public, were grossly exaggerated, by an order of magnitude.
Yet the two articles devote little attention to what they acknowledge were “the rebels’ human-rights abuses.” U.S.-backed militants committed their own share of atrocities. In particular, Libyan rebels targeted dark-skinned, sub-Saharan Africans and minority groups.
Human Rights Watch warned in 2013, in the wake of the Clinton-led war, of “serious and ongoing human rights violations against inhabitants of the town of Tawergha, who are widely viewed as having supported Muammar Gaddafi.”
Tawergha’s inhabitants were mostly descendants of black slaves, and were very poor. Rebels ethnically cleansed the city of the black Libyans. Human Rights Watch reported that militant groups carried out “forced displacement of roughly 40,000 people, arbitrary detentions, torture, and killings are widespread, systematic, and sufficiently organized to be crimes against humanity.”
Moreover, there were reports that rebels put black Libyans, whom they accused of being mercenaries for Qaddafi, in cages, forcing them to eat flags and calling them “dogs.”
These horrific, racist crimes were not mentioned in the prolix New York Times pieces on Clinton’s legacy in Libya. Yet the U.S. backed many of the rebels who would go on to commit atrocities like this.
Other rebels groups who were at least indirectly supported by the U.S. have gone on to become its present enemies.
Many liberals simply assumed Clinton’s Libya escapade was a success because it led to the fall of a despot, to regime change. Qaddafi was certainly a repressive dictator. But so was Saddam Hussein, and we see few liberals eager to defend Bush’s war in Iraq. The ruins left of both countries is hard to overstate.
Removing a dictator is the easy part. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of the abject failure of the NATO war in Libya is what we can see today: the chaos that reigns across much of the North African nation.
The war in Libya is often depicted by both Democrats and Republicans as an ostensible act of American benevolence. NATO, the putative preserver of democracy, violently overthrew a dictator, with Clinton at the helm. What is rarely ever interrogated about this trite trope, however, is the fact that the U.S. is simultaneously aligned with some of the most authoritarian countries in the world, in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
If the U.S. was truly so concerned with overthrowing a dictatorship and bringing democracy to the Middle East, why doesn’t it start with the planet’s most dictatorial nations? That is to say, its own allies in the Gulf.
Could the fact that Libya has enormous oil reserves, and was one of the world’s largest oil producers before the bombing, be a factor? Or its billions of dollars in gold reserves? Or Qaddafi’s history of supporting militant left-wing and anti-imperialist movements?
Many Americans are not very interested in international affairs. This could be due to a variety of factors (e.g., widespread acceptance of the notion that foreign policy does not directly influence one’s life, or the U.S.’s uniquely narcissistic demeanor, exemplified by the prevalence of “American exceptionalism”), but, regardless of why this is the case, poll after poll shows that foreign policy is frequently low on the list of average Americans’ concerns.
Clinton’s disastrous history in Libya shows precisely why this is folly, and why it is so dangerous to give short shrift to foreign policy.
The U.S. government spends an enormous amount of tax dollars on the military. The U.S. is responsible for more than one-third of the entire world’s military expenditure — even while it has just one-twentieth of the global population — and spends more on the military than the planet’s next nine-largest militaries combined.
Critics histrionically ask where the government would possibly get funds for social programs like universal health care, free higher education or social security (while ignoring the fact that every other country in the industrialized world already has universal health care and it works just fine, not to mention the widespread incidence of free or very cheap public higher education), yet look over this Brobdingnagian elephant in the room: military spending.
If Americans are concerned with these problems, they should be equally concerned with the prospect of a Clinton presidency. A vote for Hillary is a vote for war. Or, as economist Jeffrey Sachs put it in a recent article, Clinton “is the candidate of the military-industrial complex” and “the war machine.”
If Americans do not want to be marched toward more and more war, if Americans do not want the majority of their tax dollars spent on death and destruction, they should be very suspicious of Clinton and her record.
The destruction of Libya is the capstone of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record. And this singular symbol of her legacy is one of abject failure, indefensible atrocities and tragic destruction.