Jake Tapper couldn’t ask Hillary Clinton the kind of what-if hindsight questions that other media outlets are asking Republican presidential hopefuls about the 2003 decision to invade Iraq. She’s not taking those questions or any others at the moment. Instead, Tapper invited former Defense Secretary Robert Gates onto The Lead to ask about “more recent” decisions — the decapitation of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, conducted by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama four years ago, and the decision not to keep American troops in Iraq after 2011. Gates responds with sharp criticisms of both decisions (via Jeff Dunetz):
Tapper: Let me ask you a question about a recent decision. Knowing then what we know now about ISIS in Iraq, was it a mistake for President Obama not to have pushed harder to keep U.S. troops in Iraq?
Gates: Even had there been no ISIS that it would have been far better for us to maintain some presence, some troop presence in Iraq for a much longer period of time. Our presence there gave us access and gave us influence. We were able to constrain Maliki’s worst instincts. We were able to ensure that the leadership of the Iraqi security services was based on competence and merit. And once we left, all of the generals that we had trained and that we had helped select were all fired and replaced by a bunch of political hacks. One of the reasons that the Iraqi security forces are so hapless is so many of their officers were political appointees with no skill. Even had there been no ISIS, a longer-term presence by U.S. forces, I think, was necessary.
Essentially, this is the same thing that Gates has said since he first published his memoirs. Both Gates and his successor Leon Panetta considered the decision not to seek a new status-of-forces agreement a grave mistake, and the consequences of that decision have become obvious over the last year and a half. The Iraqi army has collapsed, and now the White House is forced to defend its strategy against ISIS even while it expands into Ramadi — a major city pacified from ISIS’ predecessor terror organization AQI at considerable cost to American lives.
Gates aims his criticism at Hillary Clinton for the next hypothetical:
Tapper: You write in the book about the only major decision with which you disagreed with then Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton, with whom you had a strong working relationship, as well as with her predecessor Condi Rice, you had a very strong working relationship with her. You said the biggest decision that you disagreed with her on was about whether or not the U.S. should intervene militarily in Libya. Looking back on it, you feel comfortable in your decision? I mean, the genocide in Benghazi was prevented, and yet you look at what’s going on in Libya, it’s hard to argue that the Obama administration had a plan for afterwards.
Gates: There was no plan, and the irony is some of those who are the most critical of President Bush not having a plan in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was ousted didn’t have a plan for what to do in Libya after Qaddafi was ousted. I think we just overestimate our ability to shape events in these countries, and we pay too little attention to things like the law of unintended consequences.
I believe if you look at Libya today, that my opposition to our intervening there was the right thing to have done. I think particularly once we prevented the humanitarian slaughter that we all worried about in Benghazi when Qaddafi’s troops were headed in that direction. But once we prevented that and we could for a much smaller cost have sustained that protection of the eastern part of the country, I think going in, throwing out Gaddafi was a mistake.
Gates, whom Bush brought in to craft the “surge” strategy that all but secured Anbar and most of western Iraq before Obama gave it all away, is correct in noting that the US routinely overestimates its ability to shape events on the ground. However, at least Bush knew enough that events on the ground were entirely un-shapeable without having American boots on it, even if he and Rumsfeld miscalculated the number needed.
That lesson had been taught long before Obama and Hillary went with their long-distance decapitation strategy against Qaddafi — in 2007, in fact, by Gates and David Petraeus. After the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, Obama bragged that he had devised the truly successful American intervention, while Hillary chortled, “We came, we saw, he died.” Within a little more than a year, every Western nation got chased out of Benghazi by the terror networks that the intervention unleashed, and four Americans died in the sack of the consulate when Hillary and Obama were too embarrassed to admit that their strategy had been an utter disaster. It produced nothing but a failed state on the Mediterranean and a clear path for terrorists to launch attacks on Europe.
Even Iowa Democrats have been forced to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton had no major accomplishments at State. Instead, she has key responsibility for a number of disasters, and Libya may have been the worst of all — a disaster for which the US and the West may spend decades paying.