Home/Daniel Larison/The Libyan War and Clinton’s “Smart Power”

The Libyan War and Clinton’s “Smart Power”

Conor Friedersdorf reviews the damage done by the Libyan intervention and its aftermath, and marvels at Hillary Clinton’s defense of it in last night’s debate. He reminds that she was instrumental in making the intervention happen and that she proudly boasts about this role even now:

Clinton is hardly alone in bearing blame for Libya. But she was among the biggest champions of the intervention. As one of her closest advisors once put it in an email, “HRC has been a critical voice on Libya in administration deliberations, at NATO, and in contact group meetings—as well as the public face of the U.S. effort in Libya. She was instrumental in securing the authorization, building the coalition, and tightening the noose around Qadhafi and his regime.” She stands behind her course of action even today. More than that, she calls it “smart power at its best”!

If the Libyan war is “smart power at its best,” that just proves that the concept is nonsense. There was nothing remotely clever or intelligent about the way that U.S. and allied power was used in Libya four years ago. The Libyan war grew out of a typical Western knee-jerk overreaction to a foreign conflict that led to a predictably short-sighted application of military power that in turn made a bad situation worse. The president once claimed to be against “dumb wars” and “rash wars,” and then ordered the U.S. to lead one that was both of those things. That Clinton continues to celebrate the Libyan war as some sort of model of the kind of foreign policy she thinks the U.S. should conduct just underscores how horrible her judgment on these issues is.

Judged by its effect on the security interests of the U.S. and our allies, the U.S./NATO intervention in Libya has been nothing but harmful. Jihadists have made gains that they could not have made prior to the overthrow of the old government, and the regime’s weapon caches have helped to fuel armed groups across North and West Africa and beyond. Having warned against the danger of a “Somalia on the Mediterranean,” so-called “humanitarian” interventionists proceeded to guarantee that outcome. When judged by its consequences for the security of Libya’s neighbors, the intervention has ranged from destructive to disastrous.

Though it is now entirely forgotten, Mali suffered from a revived Tuareg insurgency aided by pro-regime mercenaries returning home, the empowerment of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), a military coup against its democratic but ineffectual government, and eventually outside military intervention to combat the forces that the Libyan war helped to strengthen. While Mali is now starting to recover somewhat, it continues to suffer from the effects of these upheavals. Boko Haram in Nigeria has been one of the other beneficiaries of the weapons bonanza that regime change in Libya created. Though the Libyan war did not cause the conflicts in these other countries, the “success” of U.S.-led intervention contributed to making these existing conflicts worse. By any objective standard, Libya itself is also worse off today than it was prior to regime change. The resulting upheaval there has undermined the security of surrounding countries and contributed to the outpouring of refugees in the Mediterranean.

One of the more popular interventionist lines these days is to bemoan the “costs of inaction.” This treats the harm that our government does as less important than the harm done by other governments that ours “fails” to prevent. It also presupposes that the U.S. has it within its power to prevent the damage done by conflicts that it has “failed” to police as aggressively as hawks would like. Reviewing the full and ongoing costs of direct U.S. action in Libya should be a reminder to us that the U.S. doesn’t know how to limit and contain foreign conflicts and usually causes much more harm than good in the attempt. The Libyan war is another cautionary tale that interventionists in both parties are very enthusiastic to help wreck other countries in the name of “saving” them, but they consistently fail to think through what happens after the initial goal of regime change is achieved. The same pattern is being repeated in the Syria debate this year, and if the next administration is stupid enough to follow through on the campaign rhetoric we’re hearing it will produce the same ghastly results.

Hawks also like to distract attention from the harm done to the region affected by so-called “humanitarian” intervention and prefer to emphasize the relatively small price that the U.S. had to pay in intervening. Clinton was keen to point out last night that no Americans died in combat in Libya, because she calculates that the public doesn’t care about a foreign policy disaster that costs only people in other countries their lives. But when the U.S. is not as aggressive in responding to a conflict as they would like, the same hawks ignore the fact that the “costs of inaction” for the U.S. are nil and instead point to the harm done by a war that they would like the U.S. to escalate and make worse.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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