A tough call on Libya that still haunts

A tough call on Libya that still haunts

Hillary Clinton says the 2011 decision to bomb the country was ‘smart power.’ Critics say it was a failure to learn from Iraq.

Published on February 3, 2016

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walked into the gilded Elysee Palace in Paris on March 14, 2011, she found a fired-up French President Nicolas Sarkozy eager to launch military strikes in Libya.

It had been nearly a month since Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s security forces had gunned down more than a dozen protesters in Tripoli, touched off a civil war and threatened to slaughter thousands more rebels like “rats.”

Clinton had been traveling the globe meeting with allies, hoping to find a diplomatic solution to avoid U.S. military action in yet another Muslim country. She knew European and even Arab allies wanted to strike Gaddafi, and she had come to Paris to hear them out, still unconvinced.

Above: Democratic presidential candidate and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton at a December campaign rally in St Louis. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

Now, with a huge column of Gaddafi’s tanks and soldiers closing in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, an animated Sarkozy gave Clinton “an earful” about the imminent bloodbath.

“He told Hillary, ‘Something must be done,’ ” said a senior European diplomat directly involved in the Paris talks. The diplomat said Clinton came out of the meeting shaking her head about Sarkozy’s hyper-energetic style.

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“But he’s right,” she said, according to the diplomat.

A few hours later, after consultations with British and Arab allies and a leader of the Libyan opposition all demanding action, Clinton joined a White House meeting of President Obama’s National Security Council by phone and forcefully urged the president to take military action.

Clinton’s decision to shed her initial reluctance and strongly back a military operation in Libya was one of the most significant — and risky — of her career.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon and others were against military action, contending that the United States had no clear national interests at stake and that operations could last far longer and cost more lives than anyone anticipated.

But Clinton joined U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice and White House adviser Samantha Power in pressing Obama to back a U.S.- and NATO-led military campaign, arguing that the United States could not let Gaddafi butcher his citizens.

Obama sided with Clinton’s argument, and three days later, on March 17, the U.N. Security Council passed a U.S.-backed resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. U.S. warplanes immediately destroyed Libya’s air defenses before turning the operation over to NATO, which continued strikes until Gaddafi was captured and killed in October.

Hillary Clinton meets with Iowans in December at a town-hall event in Keota. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Clinton has pointed to the international military operation as a signature moment in her four-year tenure as the top U.S. diplomat: “No one else could have played the role we did,” she wrote in her book “Hard Choices,” adding that acting with European and Arab allies helped “prevent what might have been the loss of tens of thousands of lives.”

But Libya today has deteriorated into a virtual failed state run by hundreds of private militias. Eighteen months after the initial airstrikes, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in attacks by militants on a U.S. diplomatic post and a nearby CIA site in Benghazi. The North African nation has become a primary outpost for the Islamic State, which has exploited the chaos to take territory, train soldiers and prove its strength outside Syria and Iraq.

While the administration’s use of force was widely praised at the time, Libya has become a liability for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and one of the central lines of attack on her by the leading Republican candidates — and some Democrats.

Some have accused her of timidity for not pushing for a stronger and more sustained U.S. military and diplomatic campaign in Libya. Others have faulted her for getting involved at all, accusing her of “adventurism” for going beyond the civilian-protection mandate of the U.N. resolution and toppling Gaddafi without a better plan for what came next.

Clinton has repeatedly defended the Libya military intervention as U.S. “smart power at its best.”

“We had a murderous dictator . . . threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people,” she said during an October Democratic presidential debate. “We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words. And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, ‘We want you to help us deal with Gaddafi.’ ”

Clinton in August at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

But where Clinton sees “smart power,” her attackers see poor judgment and a failure to learn from mistakes made in Iraq — a war that Clinton initially voted for as a senator, then acknowledged was a mistake during her 2008 Democratic primary campaign against Barack Obama.

As in Iraq, Clinton backed a military operation that toppled a dictator yet was marred by poor postwar planning that led to violent chaos and the ultimate rise of new and even greater threats to U.S. interests.

Much of the criticism has been over the killing of Gaddafi when the U.N. mandate was only to protect civilian life.

While few mourned the loss of Gaddafi, his death, at the hands of opposition forces, has had long-term effects on U.S. relations abroad. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was his country’s prime minister during the debate over Libya, remains highly critical of the decision to pass the resolution, which he asserts Washington used as a justification for eliminating Gaddafi. Analysts have said Putin’s anger over Libya has been a key stumbling block in diplomatic discussions about whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should stay or go.

“How did we move from protecting civilians to the decapitation of the entire military and the state? I don’t know the answer,” said the European diplomat. “The Russians accused us of playing fast and loose with the resolution, and Putin never misses a chance to throw that in our faces.”

Whether different choices by the United States and its European and Arab allies could have prevented the chaos now crippling Libya remains fiercely debated.

But Clinton’s deliberations in the early weeks of the Libyan crisis offer a glimpse of how she would make decisions as commander in chief.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Tripoli, Libya, on Oct. 18, 2011. (Pool photo by Kevin Lamarque via AFP/Getty Images)

‘Different from Obama’

By the time Gaddafi’s security forces started killing protesters in Tripoli on about Feb. 17, 2011, Clinton and her staff were already working around the clock to respond to Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen.

Jake Sullivan, one of Clinton’s top advisers, said she realized immediately that the Libyan violence “could spin out of control quickly.”

Clinton confidants said the secretary quickly shifted into a mode they had seen many times. Faced with a big choice, they said, Clinton — who declined to be interviewed for this article — gathers information and ideas from a wide range of people.

“She’s different from Obama,” said a former high-ranking member of Obama’s administration who was directly involved in the Libya deliberations. “He’s a more solitary decision-maker and works with a very small group. She consults widely and intensively. She talks to more people, takes more phone calls, travels more miles.”

Like many of the people involved in Clinton’s deliberations in Libya, the former official insisted on anonymity to discuss what is still a white-hot political issue. The official described Clinton’s approach as “grind-it-out information-gathering.”

“She's different from Obama. He’s a more solitary decision-maker and works with a very small group. She consults widely and intensively. She talks to more people, takes more phone calls, travels more miles.”

—A former high-ranking member of the Obama administration who was directly involved in the Libya deliberations

“She’s more disciplined than her husband,” the official said. “Hillary Clinton came into the Situation Room for every meeting thoroughly prepared. There wasn’t anything she hadn’t read. She was punctual. She’s a disciplined decision-maker.”

When Clinton heard the Libya news, she gathered her top aides, along with other officials with expertise in Libya, at the State Department.

Over the next four weeks, Clinton received emails with advice from friends including her former aide Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Clinton administration adviser Sidney Blumenthal and former British prime minister Tony Blair, whose office sent notes from Blair’s private phone calls with Gaddafi urging him to step down.

Clinton forwarded them to Sullivan or other aides, with notations such as “pls print” or “pls read,” according to emails released by the State Department. But it is unclear whether Clinton sought that outside advice or how it affected her thinking.

“Obviously she’s got people she’s close to she relies on a great deal, but it’s not a palace-guard-like process,” said Derek Chollet, who was part of the Libya deliberations as a member of the White House’s National Security Council staff after working as a top Clinton aide for two years. “She’s comfortable with ‘flat’ organizations. She likes to hear from the junior people.”

Aides said Clinton rarely mentions her husband, former president Bill Clinton, when debating issues with her staff. But they said it seems clear that he serves as an important adviser and sounding board for her.

Hillary Clinton was initially cautious in her public remarks about Libya because, aides said, she did not want to provoke Gaddafi as she worked to arrange the safe departure of more than 300 U.S. Embassy staffers and other Americans.

Clinton’s public comments were also constrained by the president’s posture. Obama’s statements on Libya were extremely cautious; his first was issued on Feb. 18 and called for the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to “show restraint” and “respect the rights of their people.”

Three days later, Clinton called for an end to “this unacceptable bloodshed” and urged Libya to “respect the universal rights of the people.”

To critics, and even some allies, Clinton’s response seemed tepid and disappointingly insufficient.

“The horrific situation in Libya demands more than just public condemnation; it requires strong international action,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said in a statement.

The senators, Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and others were calling for the United States and allies to establish a no-fly zone over Libya to ground Gaddafi’s planes and helicopters, which had been attacking and killing rebels and protesters.

“Libya was a case where we needed to get out there, seize the moment and support these people,” said Lieberman, who retired from the Senate in 2013. “We wanted [Obama and Clinton] to understand that what was happening in Libya was important to the future of the Arab world and American credibility.”

Clinton believed that establishing a no-fly zone was premature, said Sullivan, who described her “first instinct” as seeking a way “to de-escalate the situation and avoid large-scale violence.”

Clinton was skeptical that a no-fly zone would be an effective deterrent to Gaddafi, since it would ground his planes but not stop his tanks and troops.

Sullivan said she started posing key questions to her advisers:

Who would enforce the no-fly zone? Would normally reluctant Arab nations participate? Would a no-fly zone achieve its goal of protecting civilians? Would the U.N. Security Council back the move?

Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi last October. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Gaddafi’s grip on power

The stakes Clinton faced were high.

Introducing U.S. military force could have easily led to a much-longer-than-expected and bloodier operation, at a time when Americans were already weary of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Libyan opposition was untested, and there were fears about providing such an unknown force with U.S. support and weapons.

But failing to act could have led to a massacre that the world would have blamed on Washington. It also could have solidified Gaddafi’s grip on power as other dictators were falling across the region.

The decision ultimately belonged to Obama, but Clinton was the one who had been measuring the moods of allies, especially in Arab nations leery of U.S. interventions in the Muslim world. The former White House official interviewed said Obama placed high value on the opinion of his secretary of state.

Knowing that, Sullivan said, “she wanted to be very specific and clear and not rush into a determination on something as consequential as the use of American air power in the Middle East.”

When the last Americans left Libya on Feb. 25, the tone from Washington changed immediately. The United States imposed unilateral financial sanctions on Libya and strongly backed a U.N. Security Council freeze on the assets of Gaddafi, his family and associates.

For the first time, Clinton called for Gaddafi to step down after 42 years in power, saying he had “lost the confidence of his people and he should go without further bloodshed and violence.”

Inside Libya, the rebel forces were gaining ground, putting pressure on the administration. McCain and Lieberman, traveling in the Middle East, raised questions about the administration’s resolve.

“I know there are doubts about America’s commitment to the region, our willpower, our strength,” Lieberman said. “I think in that sense it is very important that we not just make statements about the massacre that is occurring in Libya but that we lead an international coalition to do something.”

A powerful group of Obama national security officials, starting with Vice President Biden and Gates, were lined up solidly against any U.S. military involvement in Libya.

In his book “Duty,” Gates wrote that as of Feb. 26, other officials on his side included Donilon, Chief of Staff William M. Daley, Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen, deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough and homeland security adviser John Brennan. The primary advocates for military action were Rice and Power.

The secretary of state had to pick a side.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flashes a ''V'' for victory with Libyan opposition fighters before departing Tripoli in October 2011. (Pool photo by Kevin Lamarque via AFP/Getty Images)

Echoes of Iraq

Clinton’s view of the use of military force has been colored by her 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq war, according to several aides interviewed.

“Forever in her life she will be explaining why she voted for the initial Iraq invasion,” said a former State Department official who worked closely with Clinton. “It defined the 2008 election for her.”

Obama, then her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, blasted her for being “ready to give in to George Bush” on Iraq.

“So although she’s not afraid of the military, she’s a realist, she’s a pragmatist,” the former official said. “She supports the U.S. military, but she is also aware of the risks of military intervention.” And, the official noted, President Obama’s top military advisers on Libya kept saying: “Not so fast. It’s always harder than you think. It’s our guys who are going to get killed.”

Clinton flew to Geneva on Feb. 27 to attend a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council and meet with U.S. allies. The situation on the ground in Libya was getting more violent, but Clinton continued to be noncommittal.

On March 10, she told Congress: “I’m one of those who believes that absent international authorization, the United States acting alone would be stepping into a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable. And I know that’s the way our military feels. . . . We had a no-fly zone over Iraq. It did not prevent Saddam Hussein from slaughtering people on the ground, and it did not get him out of office.”

Despite those cautious words, Clinton has an innate “bias toward action,” said the former White House official, adding that her strong preference is for the United States to lead, preferably at the head of an international coalition.

“She deeply believes that the alternative to American leadership is not somebody else leading — it’s chaos,” the former official said.

Two days later in Cairo, Arab leaders made a decision that Clinton said “began to change the calculus” of her thinking. The Arab League, which represents 21 Middle Eastern countries, voted to ask the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone and recognize the Libyan opposition as the legitimate representative of the people.

The message was clear: If the United States and NATO would lead the way, Arab leaders would join military action against Gaddafi — which Clinton believed was a requirement before any offensive in Libya.

The next night, she boarded a plane for Paris.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris before March 2011 meetings on the crisis in Libya. (Pool photo by Lionel Bonaventure via AP)

‘Who are you guys?’

On Monday, March 14, she spent the day in discussions with top officials from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, Canada and Russia. She also spoke with representatives from several Arab nations.

Late that evening at her luxury hotel with a view of the Eiffel Tower, she met with Mahmoud Jibril, a low-key, U.S.-educated leader of the Libya opposition, which had organized itself into the Transitional National Council.

“It was more of an investigation than a dialogue,” Jibril recalled in an interview. “She asked every type of question that you can think of.”

Jibril, who flew to the meeting from the Qatari capital, Doha, where he was living in exile, said Clinton’s main interest in the 45-minute meeting was: “Who are you guys? What kind of objectives do you have? Suppose the regime fell down tomorrow. Are you capable of running the country?”

She grilled him about whether al-Qaeda or other radical groups were members of his council, and he said he assured her they were not.

Jibril said Clinton seemed “comforted” when he told her that his group was not seeking “revenge” against Libyans who had worked in the Gaddafi regime. But she listened without response as he pleaded for military strikes. “She made no commitments whatsoever,” he said.

In her book, Clinton said she found Jibril “impressive and polished.” After four decades of Gaddafi’s repression, she wrote, “we were unlikely to find a perfect George Washington waiting in the wings. . . . Jibril and those he represented might well be the best we could hope for.”

Meanwhile, intelligence reports indicated Gaddafi’s forces were within a day or two of reaching Benghazi, and a massacre seemed imminent.

“She basically concluded that for all of the risks of acting, the risks of not acting were greater,” Sullivan said. “That swift succession of events, in a matter of hours, really, led her to say, ‘Okay, when I get on the phone with the president, I’m going to recommend that we do this.’ ”

To critics, Clinton’s late conversion seemed opportunistic. Power and Rice had spent weeks trying to persuade a reluctant president to open a military front in Libya. Clinton held back and let them blaze the trail, they said.

Her allies call that careful, deliberate, thoughtful decision-making.

After meeting Jibril, her mind was made up. Clinton called the White House late Monday night. The Security Council passed its resolution Thursday. And on Saturday, the bombing began.

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