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Clinton’s Libyan War and the Delusions of Interventionists

The New York Times reports [1] on Hillary Clinton’s role in the Libyan war [2]. 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.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Clinton’s Libyan War and the Delusions of Interventionists"

#1 Comment By Please God Keep Her Away From The Button On February 29, 2016 @ 1:02 am

“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. “

And “failed state” and “terror haven” aren’t even the worst of it. Because it is a failed state, Libya is now one of the two main staging points for the immigrant flood from the Middle East and Africa into Europe.

Her compulsive lying and evasions to one side, the woman is, if not actually stupid, ignorant and incompetent. She is one of very, very few people in this world who could make me pull the lever for (gah) Donald Trump.

#2 Comment By Randal On February 29, 2016 @ 5:24 am

The sad reality is that grownup common sense of the kind Larison produces here is outsider unseriousness as far as the US foreign policy establishment is concerned.

That’s why the said foreign policy establishment has to be smashed and replaced wholesale if there is ever to be any chance of a US foreign policy that is run in the real interests of the US.

#3 Comment By jk On February 29, 2016 @ 7:20 am

I still do not understand why Sanders is not going on a constant offense with criticism on her myriad of Iraq-type disastrous FP decisions and setting motion even more disastrous unintended consequences (from Ukraine to Arab Spring)?

Where is the DNC gag reflex or disgust over Kagan and the diaspora of neocon advisors and others on the AIPAC payroll pledging to HRC?

Many months ago, a wise commentator on these board remarked half-jokingly that the GOP neocon parrot herd/flock would eventually be culled. And if Trump remained, the neocons would sign up for a hawkish Hillary instead!

#4 Comment By Chris Chuba On February 29, 2016 @ 7:25 am

This two part article was very long and detailed and I congratulate Daniel Larison for culling out perhaps the biggest take away.
Other things that I’d add …
1. Allowing Qatar to arm militant Islamist factions because of our incessant need to stay aligned with a regional ally who causes more harm than good. They were the Turkey equivalent in Syria.
2. The need to do something because if we didn’t then someone else would and we’d have to back stop them, in this case the French. We could have used our influence to dissuade them.
3. The fog of war. If we are generous and assume that we didn’t know that the claims of civilian deaths were exaggerated and the composition of the rebels lionized this emphasizes the need to elect people who are not neocons like Clinton or Rubio. When new situations erupt, we do not want people who will feel the need to insert U.S. power into a situation that is poorly understood.

The only candidates who are even in the right solar system today are Trump and the failing Sanders.

#5 Comment By jk On February 29, 2016 @ 7:26 am

Bill Clinton, despite his Realism, did manage to sign up the US in Kosovo and the Balkans for 20+ years already and spend billions in the place.

Yes, chump change when looked at the Iraq debacle, but a commitment that was not needed and subsidizing and creating foreign aid dependence to the Balkan countries when billions of USD could have been used at home to pay down the debt, fund SS/Medicare, or fix the infrastructure, help the space program, law enforcement, et al.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 29, 2016 @ 12:03 pm

At this point I doubt the sincerity of those “who want to believe” all the window dressing and lip service to democracy and human rights. The fact is, that’s just the public facing propaganda to manufacture public opinion.

It’s all about pushing for power advantage, calculations for political and economic domination on a geopolitical global scale.

Just look at the million of dollars for secret speeches to bankers with a lot of money riding on who gets to do what to whom.

Psychologically manipulative pieces like the Times’ are no more than exercises in presstitute punditry propaganda at worst and courtier stenography at best.

#7 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 29, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

“Yes, chump change when looked at the Iraq debacle”

And chump change is still all we got in exchange for believing we were voting for hope and change eight years ago.

As the President confided after the initial betrayals to banksters, “I would have liked to have done something, but it would have pissed off too many powerful people.”

Isn’t this all just excuses for continuing the easy way out of going along with the inertia of the neoliberal and neoconservative trajectory?

Any of the Sanders and Trump attempted detours are indeed “pissing off” a whole lot of those powerful people.

#8 Comment By Mr. Libertarian On February 29, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

Yeah, I read the whole thing over at the NYTimes. I was really hoping Mr. Larison would add his insight to it.

The article quotes President Obama as saying that it doesn’t matter because Libya would just end up like Syria with protracted warfare. The president doesn’t know crap about what’s going on. The single biggest thing in both cases is U.S. military intervention. The decision to say “Assad must go,” and draw foolish redlines with no realistic plan to follow up clearly gave a variety of opposition groups false hope to start fighting and keep fighting, which begat yet more fighting. Likewise, in Libya, mission creep turned an R2P humanitarian liberal intervention into a regime change operation that destroyed Gaddafi, with a quixotic, utopian “policy” to replace him with a capitalistic, liberal democracy with strong institutions.

And Rice, Susan Rice should’ve told the Brits and the French to go their own way. If they want to put European troops on the ground and do another Algeria campaign, go right ahead. But they aren’t even capable of such a campaign as they demonstrated in Operation Odyssey Dawn (Libya, 2011), they weren’t ready to conduct operations on this scale without significant American support. If the point of the matter is that this EU countries, first world, wealthy, Western European countries, are simply unwilling to invest an appropriate amount of money into defense, they need to scale back their ambitions and the purview of the perceived national interest, or else, if they’ve got to having American backing pay us for the pleasure. When elected president, Trump will rectify that.

Gaddafi clearly warned the Europeans that if he got deposed, the migrant crisis that is happening would happen, and that Libya would turn into a terrorist wonderland, which happened also. Aside from Syria and Iraq, Libya, especially around the city of Sirte is redoubt for ISIS. Tons of weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenal has found its way into the wrong hands. Oftentimes money funneled for nation building has instead found its to being a bribe, being stolen, being embezzled, or otherwise being misappropriated. Mali and other African nations near Libya, potentially Chad, are or could be destabilized fueling more terrorism, more migration to Europe, more internecine violence, and more safe zones…for terrorists and militias.

Russian-American relationships are badly damaged because of Libya. Russia abstained on the Security Council to permit UN authorization for the war. But Russia feels burned that the strictly humanitarian mission had turned into a Bush-style regime change operation. Russian cooperation has been slight since, and trust for American promises are way down. It’s time for the next president to work with Moscow to achieve our mutual interest of stopping radical jihad and the proliferation of more failed states. Trump would have the best shot at that because Putin likes and respects him and Trump wants to do deals with Putin, which are eminently sensible, Trump is making total sense, and are really the only to end the problems in Syria and Ukraine, and extricate ourselves from situations that don’t implicate the national interest. Clinton would struggle after botching the “reset”, betraying Russia on Libya, and using grave, dire language when referring to Russia and Putin.

#9 Comment By Brian M On February 29, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

Generals gathered in their masses,
just like witches at black masses.
Evil minds that plot destruction,
sorcerer of death’s construction.
In the fields the bodies burning,
as the war machine keeps turning.
Death and hatred to mankind,
poisoning their brainwashed minds…Oh lord yeah!

Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor

Time will tell on their power minds
Making war just for fun
Treating people just like pawns in chess
Wait `till their judgement day comes, yeah!

Now in darkness, world stops turning,
ashes where the bodies burning.
No more war pigs have the power,
hand of god has struck the hour.
Day of judgement, god is calling,
on their knees the war pigs crawling.

#10 Comment By Saving the Appearances On February 29, 2016 @ 8:15 pm

““They gave us what we wanted to hear. And you do want to believe.””

As I understand this, Clinton’s former assistant secretary is reduced to claiming she was swindled. It is a measure of just how low her reputation for veracity is that my immediate reaction to this quote was “How nice to think so.”

It seems likelier she was calculating the effect on public perceptions of her “toughness”. Does anyone think she gives a good goddamn about the effects on the US or Europe, still less on innocent Libyan civilians now living in the hellhole she helped dig?

#11 Comment By VikingLS On March 1, 2016 @ 1:11 am

“I still do not understand why Sanders is not going on a constant offense with criticism on her myriad of Iraq-type disastrous FP decisions and setting motion even more disastrous unintended consequences (from Ukraine to Arab Spring)?”

Probably because he knows if he pushes too hard rather than defend her actions she will (mostly through proxies) ramp up on the “He’s picking on me because I’m a girl!”

#12 Comment By Edward Jones On March 1, 2016 @ 2:41 am

Of course none of this “Monday morning quarterbacking” on our disastrous decision to enact regime change in Libya is going to matter to those who support Hillary Clinton for President. Democratic voters are just as blissfully blind and ignorant when it comes to their cherished political personalities as Republicans are. Democratic voters are just as willing to accept mindless military interventions as Republicans voters are as long those proposed interventions are cloaked in the rhetoric of humanitarianism.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 1, 2016 @ 8:59 am

I have made this suggestion repeatedly.

Sec. Clinton, undermined the Admin. foreign policy intent and agenda. Given that the current executive felt obliged to invite her into he should have known his cabinet that her ambitions and even the feeling that it should be she instead of him in the oval would office were on full display in Libya, Egypt the Ukraine and I suspect Syria.

All of which should be dispelling anyone of her integrity, but the drum beat goes on. She fully took advantage of her connection, and insider establishment network to undermine his stated agenda. And it’s clearer not than before. It’s time the neocon word ceased being utilize unless it includes the likes of the Sec. fans in Hollywood, the Warren Buffets, Bill Gates, etc.

As is typical, liberals put cardboard over their mirrors.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 1, 2016 @ 9:11 am

And while the executive must ultimately take responsibility for his policy agenda, any focus on the Security advisor is misplaced.
The most important advise and council on foreign policy would reside in two departments, the UN Ambassador and the Sec of State.

He was poorly advised by both parties and the financial cabal supporters to whom he felt he owed a debt.

Nothing about the career of Sec Clinton suggests effective policy advances, muchless those good for the US

#15 Comment By Mr. Libertarian On March 1, 2016 @ 7:48 pm

Yeah, the experts know nothing. All you need is internet access. These people they make no sense, it’s all:These limousine liberals from NYTimes and WaPo at their Georgetown and Manhattan cocktail parties, eating escargot and Beluga caviar with tiny spoons, with “I’m with Hillary” buttons on the lapels of their Armani suits, grousing, “I say, these Trumpians are quite gauche!”

#16 Comment By sglover On March 5, 2016 @ 2:55 pm

I never understood why, in the Libyan adventure, Obama couldn’t put on a big show of playing Eisenhower, and reenact Ike’s role in the Suez fiasco. From an American perspective, invading Libya was at best simply pointless. But French eagerness to wade in could only be evidence that thinking in Paris was deeply broken: Did nobody imagine the refugee crisis across the Mediterranean?!? The spillover into Libya’s neighbors?!?!

Like Eisenhower during Suez, Obama could have dissuaded an ally from doing something really stupid. The irony is that we’d be doing France the same favor they tried to do for us, when they argued against the Iraq adventure. It’s typical of Obama that he lacked the nerve.