Trump: When I said we'd be better off with Qaddafi still in charge of Libya, I meant I wanted a "surgical strike" on Qaddafi

A funny clip, just because he seems sincerely surprised to be told that he once called, on video, for going in and “stopping” Qaddafi after the rebellion in Libya broke out in 2011. A lot of time and trouble has been spent over the past year trying to tease out a coherent foreign policy from Trump’s musings but that’s hard to do. He shifts too much. He has the good sense in a war-weary country to frame himself as broadly anti-interventionist, but whenever the public has gotten war fever in the past, he’s made sure to stay on the right side of opinion, however tepidly. In 2002, as Bush was making the case for invading Iraq, he answered a question from Howard Stern about whether we should attack with “Yeah, I guess so.” He supported a “surgical strike” aimed at killing Qaddafi in 2011, then turned around later and slammed Obama and Hillary for intervening on grounds that America “would be so much better off if Qaddafi would be in charge right now.” On Syria, he went from warning about a new quagmire last October to talking up a huge invasion force just five months later, at the March debate:

In October, Trump spoke of potential perils.

“Everybody that’s touched the Middle East, they’ve gotten bogged down,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I don’t want to see the United States get bogged down. We’ve spent now $2 trillion in Iraq, probably a trillion in Afghanistan. We’re destroying our country.”

At the CNN-hosted debate Thursday night, the Republican presidential front-runner sounded a different note.

“We really have no choice. We have to knock out ISIS,” he said. “I would listen to the generals, but I’m hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000.”

Which is the real Trump, the paleocon who’s skeptical of foreign adventures or the muscular strongman who’s going to show monsters abroad who’s boss? The answer for most Trump fans, as usual, is whichever version of Trump you personally prefer.

Lost in the media murmuring about Trump’s Libya spin, though, is the fact that his answer doesn’t make sense. He stresses to John Dickerson when challenged about what he said in 2011 that he wanted a small surgical strike aimed at Qaddafi himself, not “what you have right now.” But by historical American norms, the Libya intervention was a surgical strike. It was an air campaign; it targeted Qaddafi’s military infrastructure, weakening it to the point that the rebels were eventually able to overrun the regime. The endless problems Libya’s had since then stem from the fact that the west has been unwilling to intervene further and put peacekeeping forces on the ground in a country controlled by militias. That is to say, the reason Libya is chaotic today is because Obama did what Trump suggested — he helped take out Qaddafi but then did little to fill the power vacuum that followed, which led to anarchy. How would Trump’s approach have produced a different result? If we had zapped Qaddafi with a drone strike in 2011, what then? Either the regime would have crumbled, leading to the sort of anarchy we see now, or one of Qaddafi’s deputies would have replaced him and continued to prosecute the war on the rebels that led Americans like Trump to call for taking out Qaddafi in the first place. What you’re seeing here, I think, is Trump answering a question on instinct because he doesn’t know enough about the facts to anticipate obvious counterpoints. He knows Americans respond well to the idea that we should be reluctant to intervene so he emphasizes to Dickerson that he wanted the smallest possible intervention. That’s great, except that a small intervention is what landed the country in the predicament it’s in right now.

Nice touch, though, in emphasizing how much money he made from Qaddafi. Republicans don’t even blink at stuff like that anymore. Two clips for you here, one of yesterday’s interview and the other of a different Trump statement on Libya from 2011 in which he faulted Obama for not demanding that the rebels pledge an enormous share of Libya’s oil revenue up front as the price of U.S. assistance. Paleocons, who like Trump’s anti-interventionist rhetoric, spent years deriding Iraq as a “war for oil.” Here’s Trump explicitly suggesting that the Libyan intervention be run that way, with U.S. servicemen placed in harm’s way only if there’s enough black gold on the table.