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Clinton’s Libyan War and the Delusions of Interventionists

Our officials shouldn't "want to believe" the self-serving propaganda of spokesmen for a foreign insurgency.
hillary clinton

The New York Times reports on Hillary Clinton’s role in the Libyan war. This passage sums up much of what’s wrong with how Clinton and her supporters think about how the U.S. should respond to foreign conflicts:

Mrs. Clinton was won over. Opposition leaders “said all the right things about supporting democracy and inclusivity and building Libyan institutions, providing some hope that we might be able to pull this off,” said Philip H. Gordon, one of her assistant secretaries. “They gave us what we wanted to hear. And you do want to believe.” [bold mine-DL]

It’s not surprising that rebels seeking outside support against their government tell representatives of that government things they want to hear, but it is deeply disturbing that our officials are frequently so eager to believe that what they are being told was true. Our officials shouldn’t “want to believe” the self-serving propaganda of spokesmen for a foreign insurgency, especially when that leads to U.S. military intervention on their behalf. They should be more cautious than normal when they are hearing “all the right things.” Not only should our officials know from previous episodes that the people saying “all the right things” are typically conning Washington in the hopes of receiving support, but they should assume that anyone saying “all the right things” either doesn’t represent the forces on the ground that the U.S. will be called on to support or is deliberately misrepresenting the conditions on the ground to make U.S. involvement more attractive.

“Wanting to believe” in dubious or obviously bad causes in other countries is one of the biggest problems with ideologically-driven interventionists from both parties. They aren’t just willing to take sides in foreign conflicts, but they are looking for an excuse to join them. As long as they can get representatives of the opposition to repeat the required phrases and pay lip service to the “right things,” they will do their best to drag the U.S. into a conflict in which it has nothing at stake. If that means pretending that terrorist groups are democrats and liberals, that is what they’ll do. If it means whitewashing the records of fanatics, that is what they’ll do. Even if it means inventing a “moderate” opposition out of thin air, they’ll do it. This satisfies their desire to meddle in other countries’ affairs, it provides intervention with a superficial justification that credulous pundits and talking heads will be only too happy to repeat, and it frees them from having to come up with plans for what comes after the intervention on the grounds that the locals will take care of it for them later on.

The fact that interventionists “want to believe” what they’re told by opposition figures in other countries reflects their general naivete about the politics of the countries where they want to intervene and their absurd overconfidence in the efficacy of U.S. action in general. If one takes for granted that there must be sympathetic liberals-in-waiting in another country that will take over once a regime is toppled, one isn’t going to worry about the negative and unintended consequences of regime change. Because interventionists have difficulty imagining how U.S. intervention can go awry or make things worse, they are also unlikely to be suspicious of the motives or goals of the “good guys” they want the U.S. to support. They tend to assume the best about their would-be proxies and allies, and they assume that the country will be in good hands once they are empowered. The fact that this frequently backfires doesn’t trouble these interventionists, who will have already moved on to the next country in “need” of their special attentions.

The article continues:

The consequences would be more far-reaching than anyone imagined, leaving Libya a failed state and a terrorist haven, a place where the direst answers to Mrs. Clinton’s questions have come to pass.

If the article is referring to anyone in the administration, this might be true, but as a general statement it couldn’t be more wrong. Many skeptics and opponents of the intervention in Libya warned about many of the things that the Libyan war and regime change have produced, and they issued these warnings before and during the beginning of U.S. and allied bombing. Interventionists usually can’t imagine any “far-reaching” consequences that aren’t good, and they are predisposed to ignore all the many ways that a country and an entire region can be harmed by destabilizing military action. That failure of imagination repeatedly produces poor decisions that result in ghastly policies that wreck the lives of millions of people.

The report goes on to quote Anne-Marie Slaughter referring to Clinton’s foreign policy inclinations:

“But 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.”

This captures exactly what’s wrong with Clinton on foreign policy, and why she so often ends up on the wrong, hawkish side of foreign policy debates. First, she is biased in favor of action and meddling, and second she often identifies action with military intervention or some other aggressive, militarized measures. Clinton doesn’t need to be argued into an interventionist policy, because she already “wants to believe” that is the proper course of action. That guarantees that she frequently backs reckless and unnecessary U.S. actions that cause far more misery and suffering than they remedy.

Maybe the most striking section of the report was the description of the administration’s initial reluctance to intervene, which Clinton then successfully overcame:

France and Britain were pushing hard for a Security Council vote on a resolution supporting a no-fly zone in Libya to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from slaughtering his opponents. Ms. Rice was calling to push back, in characteristically salty language.

“She says, and I quote, ‘You are not going to drag us into your shitty war,’” said Mr. Araud, now France’s ambassador in Washington. “She said, ‘We’ll be obliged to follow and support you, and we don’t want to.’

This is revealing in a few ways. First, it shows how resistant the administration initially was and how important Clinton’s support for the war was in getting the U.S. involved. It also shows how confused everyone in the administration was about the obligations the U.S. owed to its allies. The U.S. isn’t obliged to indulge its allies’ wars of choice, and it certainly doesn’t have to join them, but the administration was already conceding that the U.S. would “follow and support” France and Britain in what they chose to do. As we know, in the end France and Britain definitely could and did drag the U.S. into their “shitty war,” and in that effort they received a huge assist from Clinton. It was already well-known that Clinton owns the Libyan intervention more than any U.S. official besides the president, and this week we’re being reminded once more just how crucial her support for the war was in making it happen.



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