Back to previous page


Post Most

Clinton: Libya showed U.S. leadership to be ‘essential’

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sat down with The Washington Post to reflect on the campaign that helped lead to the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi. Here are some highlights:

On Gaddafi’s defeat as a vindication of Obama administration policy:

“I do think that we set into motion a policy that was on the right side of history, on the right side of our values, on the right side of our strategic interests in the region. And it turned out to have brought about the result that we thought it would in a relatively short period of time. . . .

We live in an incredibly complex world where America’s leadership is essential, where a lot of the things we want to see done in our own national interest in furtherance of our own values are important enough that, if necessary, we would do it unilaterally, but preferably, we want to do it with a coalition of nations that understand the interests and values at stake.”

On the initial reluctance to embrace the no-fly zone:

“It was so unclear in the beginning as to how this would play out. It took some time for me to be convinced that we could put together a credible coalition that would be able to support the opposition and to support strong action in the UN and then the kind of military support that they needed in order to have a chance at succeeding. . . .

There was a lot of questioning within our government about whether we should do anything; if so, what should we do; what kind of role the United States should play. And it was important to do — to lay the groundwork, which meant we had to find out who these people were, look them in the eye, try to figure out how serious they were, how capable they were. We had to test the willingness of the Arab League and Arab countries to go beyond rhetoric to action and support. We had to be sure that the U.N. would pass the kind of resolution that would enable the international community, starting with sanctions and freezing of assets and then moving to the no-fly zone, embargo, civilian protection mission. And all of that took intensive amounts of diplomacy.”

On ensuring Arab support for the mission:

“The turning point in the international assessment was when the Arab League asked for action. And as I said, we had to do a lot to make it clear they totally understood what they were asking for when they asked for a no-fly zone, so that there couldn’t be any recriminations later. So we did a lot of that work, we laid the groundwork. So then when they came in with their Arab League meeting and said yes, we want you to do that, it was really important that they participate. And it turned out that they did. And although Egypt and Tunisia did not participate in any kind of military way, their support on the borders was absolutely essential.”

On concerns about a possible stalemate:

“I really did think if we had the patience to persist, we would see success with the mission. For a couple of weeks there, we were having regular calls of just the top national security officials with our military commanders who were part of the NATO mission in some supportive role, and our understanding of the situation was getting better by the day. The NATO mission, along with our Arab allies, was getting smoother. . . .

When we started, we had no ability to have ground-based assessment teams that could give us the intelligence and the surveillance and the reconnaissance that you usually have. The president had said no boots on the ground. At the beginning, really, there were very few non-Libyan opposition people that were on the ground that could be in any way part of a command-and-control operation. So we have this difficult task in getting going, figuring out where we were.”

On political opposition in the United States:

“We had this problem that many in the Congress were either very supportive and thought we should be doing more than we were doing, and the other end of spectrum totally unsupportive and wanted us out and never there, and ‘end it now.’ . . . I felt like we were not making our case effectively enough, and I thought we had a really good case to make. . . 

The argument that I made, both in public to the press and behind closed doors to the Congress, I said when we were attacked on 9/11, NATO invoked Article 5 for collective defense. And we have had our allies, our NATO allies, plus a broad coalition of a total of about 48 nations, in Afghanistan with us now for a decade. They come to us and they say this is in our vital national security interests, this is really close to where we live. . . . All of a sudden, we’re going to say, ‘We can’t be bothered, I’m really sorry about that?’ I don’t think that you can have an alliance and be the leader of that alliance for as long as we have and assume that everybody will do what you think is important to do, if you don’t listen and respect what they think is important to do.”

On the applicability of the “Libya model”:

“This particular example will be studied for a long time because it was a real model of what we meant. Now, it took advantage of kind of established institutions like NATO; it sought legitimacy from established institutions like the U.N., the Arab League, et cetera. But it took the United States to kind of put all of the pieces together and then to keep everybody going. Because you’re right; we went through periods of anguish and buyer’s remorse and doubts, and there was all of that. . . .

I think we need to let the lessons settle in, we need to assess where we are and what we accomplished together, what the costs were. But I think part of what we’re finding is that we do have to be more agile and flexible in dealing with a lot of the challenges we face, and we should be unembarrassed about that. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all that we can impose on every situation.”

On the challenges facing the new Libya:

“First and foremost, they have to unify the country. That will be a huge challenge. They have to figure out how to reconcile various political and religious beliefs. They have to unify all of the tribes. They have to deal with the rivalry that has existed forever between the west and the east, between Benghazi and Tripoli. And they’re going to have to be very clear as to what their agenda is and how it will help meet the needs of all the different groups. . . .

They have a very complicated political task ahead of them, and they don’t have a lot of experience in what we consider politics. So we’ve offered all kinds of technical assistance and support going forward, as have many others. But that’s their overwhelming task, and that can be connected to their second overwhelming task, which is to create a government. . . .

These were really thoughtful people. There’s a professional class in Libya that, despite all of the problems, survived. I think there will be some expats who might come back. So we’re going to help them any way we can.”

© The Washington Post Company