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How Hillary Clinton Defends her Failed War in Libya

Using contested intelligence, a powerful adviser urges a president to wage a war of choice against a dictator; makes a bellicose joke when he is killed; declares the operation a success; fails to plan for a power vacuum; and watches Islamists gain power.

That describes Dick Cheney and the Iraq War—and Hillary Clinton and the war in Libya. (Hillary said: we came, we saw, we killed Gaddafi. Trying to emulate Caesar uttering)

At Tuesday’s primary debate, Clinton was criticized not just for the Iraq War vote that cost her the 2008 election, but also for the undeclared 2011 war that she urged in Libya.

The Obama Administration waged that war of choice in violation of the War Powers Resolution and despite the official opposition of the U.S. Congress. “Governor Webb has said that he would never have used military force in Libya and that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was inevitable,” Anderson Cooper told the former Secretary of State. “Should you have seen that attack coming?”

“American military adventurism relies on a very backward notion of causation,” he explained. “When evil men in the world kill their own people, somehow America is to blame for not stopping them. When American action leads directly to disorder, barbarism, and terror, well, that’s someone else’s fault.”

Few viewers seemed to notice the weakest moment in the Democratic frontrunner’s debate.
http://www.theatlantic.com|By Conor Friedersdorf

Her answer included a broad defense of the war in Libya. “Remember what was going on,” she began, repeating a version of events that some intelligence officials and human rights groups doubt. “We had a murderous dictator, Gadhafi, who had American blood on his hands … threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people. 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 Gadhafi.’”

She characterized the Obama Administration’s response as “smart power at its best,” saying that while America refused to take the lead in the war, “we will provide essential, unique capabilities that we have, but the Europeans and the Arabs had to be first over the line. We did not put one single American soldier on the ground.”

She then put a positive gloss on the war’s outcome. “I’ll say this for the Libyan people…” she said. “I think President Obama made the right decision at the time. And the Libyan people had a free election the first time since 1951. And you know what, they voted for moderates, they voted with the hope of democracy. Because of the Arab Spring, because of a lot of other things, there was turmoil to be followed.”

That is about as misleading as summarizing the Iraq War by saying that the Iraqis had a terrible leader; they had a free election after the war; and they voted for moderates. It elides massive suffering and security threats that have occurred in postwar Libya.

Yet the answer didn’t hurt the Democratic frontrunner. That’s because neither CNN moderators nor prospective Clinton supporters understand the magnitude of the catastrophe that occurred amid the predictable power vacuum that followed Ghadafi’s ouster.

“Libya today—in spite of the expectations we had at the time of the revolution—it’s much, much worse,” Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told Frontline. “Criminality is skyrocketing. Insecurity is pervasive. There are no jobs. It’s hard to get food and electricity. There’s fighting, there’s fear … I see very few bright spots.”

U.S. arms found their way into the hands of Islamists.

“Nearly three and a half years after Libyan rebels and a NATO air campaign overthrew Muammar al-Qaddafi, the cohesive political entity known as Libya doesn’t exist,” Libya expert Frederic Wehrey reported earlier this year in Defense One.

“There is no central government, but rather two competing claims on legitimacy.”

He went on to describe the rivals:

On one side of the fight are the forces of Operation Dignity gathered around General Khalifa Hifter, a former Qaddafi-era officer who defected in the 1980s and returned to the country in 2011. In May, he launched Dignity as a military campaign to root out Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi and exclude Islamists from political power. His allies include disaffected military units, security men from the old regime, prominent eastern tribes, federalists demanding greater autonomy for the east, and militias from Zintan and other western towns.

On the opposing side is the Libya Dawn coalition… It includes ex-jihadists from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, militias from the powerful port of Misrata, and fighters drawn from certain Tripoli neighborhoods, the ethnic Berber population, and some communities in the western mountains and coast. Dawn has forged a tactical alliance with a coalition of Benghazi-based Islamist militias that are battling Hifter’s forces, one of which is the U.S.-designated terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia. Each side claims its own parliament, prime minister, and army.

In August, The New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson described the gains made by the Islamists as well as the consequences of ISIS fighters controlling territory in Libya:

Last November, battle-hardened Libyan Islamists, who had returned home from fighting in Iraq and Syria, along with Islamists from other countries, seized the eastern city of Derna and claimed it for ISIS. Emulating their comrades in Raqqa and Mosul, they stoned, shot, beheaded, and crucified people deemed guilty of espionage or ‘un-Islamic’ behavior. Last month, a rival militia loyal to Al Qaeda waged and won a battle for control of the city. The victors are said to have marched the captured ISIS commander through the streets naked before executing him. ISIS lost Derna, but in the past few months they have taken Qaddafi’s home town of Sirte and surrounding areas in Libya’s “Oil Crescent,” and have begun attacks on the outer defenses of the city of Misrata.

Alas, that’s not all:

For months, ISIS has been trumpeting its abduction and execution of African Christians in Libya. In February, a slick, ghoulish video showed twenty-one Egyptian hostages in orange jumpsuits being led along a beach by black-masked executioners, who forced them to kneel and then cut off their heads.

In April, another video appeared, showing the execution of twenty-nine Ethiopians in Libya. Gunmen who trained with ISIS in Libya were involved in the murder of twenty foreign tourists, at a Tunis museum in March, and thirty-eight more tourists, most of them British, at a seaside resort in Tunisia in June. These attacks focused attention on the fact that Libya, a vast, oil-rich, underpopulated country with a long southern-Mediterranean coastline, has become part of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate. In a parallel phenomenon, armed trafficking gangs in Libya are driving most of Africa’s illegal immigration to Europe. As many as a hundred and seventy thousand are thought to have made the crossing last year, with thousands dying en route. Unprecedented numbers are continuing to cross this year, taking advantage of the chaos in Libya.

An unnamed Obama Administration official told Anderson, “We think that the threat from ISIL-affiliated groups in Libya is very serious and we’re treating it that way.”

A strong case can be made that the war made Americans less safe.

Michael Brendan Dougherty offers one of the most incisive descriptions of Clinton’s incoherent approach. “American military adventurism relies on a very backward notion of causation,” he explained. “When evil men in the world kill their own people, somehow America is to blame for not stopping them. When American action leads directly to disorder, barbarism, and terror, well, that’s someone else’s fault.”

He continued:

Death and civil war in Libya were unacceptable outcomes for America when Gadhafi was alive. But death and civil war continue unabated, the difference being that the Islamic State is now one of the players — and somehow it’s not in the American interest to stop it or to help Libyans establish some kind of law and order. The lessons of Iraq have been internalized: Once you create a total power vacuum that will attract terror gangs and radical Islamic fundamentalists, it’s best to not have any boots on the ground to stop them.

The catastrophe continues to unfold this month. The International Business Times reports that “an armed group in the northwestern Libyan coastal city of Sabratha kidnapped dozens of Tunisians late Monday night. The number of hostages has not yet been confirmed, but local news reports state that roughly 300 Tunisians were taken.”

The Wall Street Journal reports on the people trying to flee the region:

More than 300,000 refugees and migrants have tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, up from 219,000 in all of 2014, according to the United Nations refugee agency, and at least 3,000 have died en route. A significant percentage of those deaths have occurred on ships sailing from the Libyan coast around Zuwara, according to U.N. and Libyan officials. That area is known as a crossroads for smuggling both migrants and cheap fuel to Europe, and alcohol and cigarettes from Europe back to northern and sub-Saharan Africa.

What was a fringe business in Gadhafi’s time has blossomed into a core part of the economy, especially after layoffs at Zuwara’s main employers—a nearby oil refinery and chemical plant—because of the political uncertainty.

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”!

As a result, Democrats ought to conclude that she hasn’t learned enough  from her decision to support the Iraq War, and that a Clinton administration would likely pursue more wars of choice with poor judgment and insufficient planning. It is difficult to imagine a more consequential leadership flaw. And yet, the issue remains an afterthought in the campaign, even as multiple Clinton rivals criticize her hawkishness and pledge to be more wary of involving America in wars of choice. Neoconservatives could hardly orchestrate a Democratic primary more to their liking.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

What kind of Logic is this: Justifying the killing of civilians and children?

The Dangerous Logic Used to Justify Killing Civilians

A supporter of Israel’s campaign in Gaza evades a longstanding taboo, using logic uncomfortably close to what’s employed by Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists.
After the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden argued that Al Qaeda was perfectly justified in killing all those people inside the World Trade Center because they weren’t really civilians–they were complicit in U.S. might and misdeeds.
Didn’t their taxes fund America’s CIA assassinations and war planes?
As every American understood perfectly well at the time, the attack that day would not have been justified even if all office workers in the Twin Towers had voted for a president and supported a military that perpetrated grave sins in the Middle East.
Or even, indeed, if they were all subletting spare bedrooms to U.S. soldiers.

Reuters

Killing civilians is wrong, no matter how often those who do it insist that the humans they killed weren’t really innocent.

Everyone understands this truth when the civilians being killed are one’s countrymen or allies–but forget it quickly when the civilians are citizens of a country one is fighting or rooting against in war, even though the civilizational taboo against killing civilians becomes no less important.

The latest to succumb to this seductive illogic, to insist that slain civilians weren’t really civilians, is New York University’s Thane Rosenbaum, who writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Gazans sheltered terrorists and their weapons in their homes, right beside ottoman sofas and dirty diapers. When Israel warned them of impending attacks, the inhabitants defiantly refused to leave.

On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations.

At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.

For purposes of this article, let’s set aside all the adults killed in Gaza, just for the sake of argument.

The dead Palestinian children are evidence enough that “real civilians” are being slaughtered.

In the above passage, the author focuses on the dirty diapers rather than the baby that produced them.

Elsewhere, he acknowledges the revolting number of kids killed in this conflict, and then adds, as if it’s concession enough, “Surely there are civilians who have been killed in this conflict who have taken every step to distance themselves from this fast-moving war zone, and children whose parents are not card-carrying Hamas loyalists. These are the true innocents of Gaza.”

In fact, even a toddler whose father is a card-carrying Hamas loyalist is an innocent, by virtue of being a young child!

It is a moral failure not to acknowledge at least that.

And the failure is worth dwelling on because wide embrace of Rosenbaum’s logic would be a setback for a world where civilians have legal protection in war, however often it is violated.

As Daniel Larison explains:

Rosenbaum’s argument is extremely similar to the justifications that terrorist groups use when they target civilians in their own attacks. It is based on the false assumption that there are no real innocents or bystanders in a given country because of their previous political support for a government and its policies, which supposedly makes it permissible to strike non-military targets.

It is very important to reject this logic no matter where it comes from or whose cause in a conflict it is being used to advance, because this is the logic that has been used to justify countless atrocities down through the years.

Just so.

No matter one’s position on Israel, Palestine, or the current conflict, the fact that innocent civilians exist on both sides, that they ought to be protected from death and dismemberment, and that they’re presently dying in large numbers ought not be denied.

Lest there be any confusion about what sorts of attacks I am condemning, consider any bygone instance of a Palestinian suicide bomber blowing up a restaurant or discotheque–or the lobbing rockets into residential neighborhoods inside Israel–as well as Israeli attacks like one that the New York Times just reported on:

When the strike leveled a four-story house in the southern Gaza Strip the night before, it also killed 25 members of 4 family households—including 19 children—gathered to break the daily Ramadan fast together.

Relatives said it also killed a guest of the family, identified by an Israeli human rights group as a member of the Hamas military wing, ostensibly Israel’s target.

The attack was the latest in a series of Israeli strikes that have killed families in their homes, during an offensive that Israel says is meant to stop militant rocket fire that targets its civilians and destroy Hamas’s tunnel network.

The Palestinian deaths—75% of them civilians, according to a United Nations count—have prompted a wave of international outrage, and are raising questions about Israel’s stated dedication to protecting civilians.

Killing 19 children in order to get one Hamas fighter is horrific.

Says Larison, alluding to such attacks:

It may please Hamas to make use of these victims’ deaths for their own purposes, but that doesn’t absolve the Israeli government of its responsibility for causing those deaths.

If Hamas benefits politically from these civilian deaths, and it seems likely that they do, it would seem obvious that Israel should not want to cause any more, and yet at each step over the last few weeks Israel’s government has responded with tactics that are guaranteed to continue killing many more non-combatants for as long as this operation continues.

Israel’s experience as a terrorist target suggests that watching foreigners kill children in one’s midst does not break a people’s desire to fight—it strengthens it.

The spike in civilian deaths we’re witnessing appears to be a moral and strategic failure.

CONOR FRIEDERSDORF is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs.

He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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