Hillary Clinton’s handling of Libya in 2011 when she was secretary of state will not do in her candidacy for president.
One factor having nothing to do with Libya is working in her favor. The Republicans are scrambling to find a candidate who can command the allegiance of a broad spectrum of the voting public, and they may not succeed. Clinton may well be able to prevail in the election, whatever her foibles.
Libya is, however, a major item on Clinton’s resume. In 2011 Libya was in turmoil, with an insurgency in the east of the country, based in the city of Benghazi.
That insurgency was vying with the central government, based in the capital city of Tripoli. The government of Libya was planning a major assault on Benghazi. Muammar Gaddafi, longtime leader of the government, was saying the assault would be ferocious. His warning to Benghazi was taken by many as intent to go after the civilian population, genocide style. Whether Gaddafi was just trying to frighten the easterners into submission, or whether he planned mass killing will never be known for sure.
Britain and France were gung-ho to bomb the government’s military forces, in order, they said, to save the easterners from genocide.
In the White House inner circle, Clinton pushed President Barack Obama — against the advice of the Pentagon — to provide logistics and muster political support for a bombing campaign. Clinton even got the United Nations Security Council to back the operation.
The bombing campaign went off as planned. The central government was kept out of Benghazi. But the French and British airstrikes then continued to help the eastern elements overthrow the government.
The rap against Clinton is that she pushed Obama into supporting Britain and France without thinking about the consequences.
Regime change was not a stated objective, but it was at least foreseeable. And maybe more. French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have been secretly plotting with the Benghazi-based rebels in the hope that a grateful replacement government would welcome the French energy giant Total to Libya’s oil fields.
Whatever the calculations at the time, the upshot of the bombing campaign was a “failed state.” No government with a writ over much of the country has emerged since 2011. Armed groups control various parts of Libya.
Within the past year the Islamic State has taken control of a swath of Mediterranean beachfront in Libya, including the major coastal town of Sirte. The Islamic State may be looking to Libya as a new base of operations.
All this may not seem like a plus for Clinton’s presidential campaign. Her Libya gambit turned to brass. But even the minority of voters who give weight to foreign policy issues may not think too harshly about her.
Most of the Republican candidates are waxing more hawkish than Clinton when they talk about the Middle East. So even if Clinton’s handling of Libya raises questions about her judgment, it is hard to argue that a Republican would do better if a similar situation should arise in the next four years.
And having once gotten burned, Clinton may be more wary than a Republican if such a situation hits the desk in the Oval Office.
Clinton is also taking heat for not protecting the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012, when it was burned and destroyed in a well-coordinated attack.
The U.S. ambassador and two others inside were killed. Whether Clinton should have done more to prevent the attack is an issue that dogs her. The circumstances are too murky, however, for this to be a major negative for Clinton with voters.
Clinton may or may not prevail in November. What she did, or did not do, in Libya is not likely to tip the balance.
John B. Quigley is distinguished professor of law at the Ohio State University. He is the author of 11 books on various aspects of international law. Readers may write to him at Moritz College of Law, 55 W. 12th St., Columbus, OH 43210.