A Brief Note on Libya

by Reihan Salam

Over at Quartz, Tim Fernholz has a short, convincing piece on ”the real legacy of Benghazi“:

The legacy is that the attack, which killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, caused the US—which had been a key part of the 2011 coalition that ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi—to suddenly lose its appetite for reconstruction. “Libya became radioactive,” an attorney for the Libyan opposition writes (paywall).

It still is. Just training a Libyan security force—never mind other aid—will cost $600 million, but the US spent only $6 million in Libya last year. The country is still locked in a complex civil war, as the UN tries to broker a deal between Western-backed and Islamist coalitions. Fighting has driven refugees from their homes, offered ISIL a North African foothold, and undercut oil production for European markets.

Fernholz goes on to argue that the legacy of Benghazi extends beyond Libya, as the Benghazi experience has shaped U.S. policy towards Syria and Afghanistan, among other countries. Though I imagine I disagree with Fernholz as to what the U.S. ought to have done in the wake of Benghazi, I find myself just as frustrated by the fact that Hillary Clinton has been grilled far more about how she handled the Benghazi crisis narrowly understood and not about the larger disaster that has unfolded since the U.S. decided to intervene militarily in Libya in 2011. In “Delusions of Grand Strategy,” David Edelstein and Ronald Krebs, two dovish foreign policy scholars, make at least one point that I heartily embrace, and that is readily applicable to the Libya intervention: 

Although national security sometimes requires secrecy, there are limits to what democratically elected governments should withhold from citizens. Citizens have the right to demand that their leaders explain their foreign policy priorities and initiatives and that their representatives in Congress, rather than engage in political grandstanding, ask hard questions of and demand real answers from the executive branch.

As much as I appreciate the effort to get to the bottom of exactly what happened on the day of the Benghazi attack, I’d also like for Clinton, and for President Obama, to walk us through the logic of their decision to help topple the Qaddafi government, and whether they believe the U.S. is safer now that Libya is wracked by civil war. Have our national interests been served by the collapse in Libyan oil production, the destabilization of Libya’s neighboring states, and the outflow of refugees? Given that Clinton has taken some of the credit for the decision to intervene in Libya, can she explain to us what exactly she’s taken away from the experience? Assuming she did not want Libya to descend into civil war, how did she envision a post-Qaddafi transition unfolding, and what kind of role did she think the U.S. ought to have played? Or have events in Libya unfolded just as she had anticipated? 

There were, of course, Republican hawks who favored intervening in Libya just as there were Democratic hawks who backed the Obama administration. Yet Republican hawks have the excuse of claiming that they would have handled the intervention quite differently — perhaps they would have been more proactive militarily, or they might have persuaded allied countries to invest more heavily in peacekeeping resources. Ultimately, it is the architects of the Libya intervention, including Clinton, who must answer for why they chose to pull the trigger, and for what’s happened since. 

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