CNN: Yes, Hillary has serious problems with Libya

No kidding, but it’s not just Hillary Clinton who will struggle with the outcome of the Obama administration’s Libyan intervention in 2011. Today’s story about the Christians captured by ISIS while trying to escape through Tripoli, and other such stories that will surely follow, will keep raising this issue over and over again during the campaign. CNN’s Stephen Collinson calls this a real problem for Hillary, especially given her reliance on four years as Secretary of State to claim readiness for the top job:

She’s already grappling with the political headaches from deleted emails and from the terror attack that left four Americans dead in Benghazi.

But she’ll face a broader challenge in what’s become of the North African country since, as secretary of state in 2011, she was the public face of the U.S. intervention to push out its longtime strongman, Moammar Gadhafi.

Libya’s lapse into the chaos of failed statehood has provided a breeding ground for terror and a haven for groups such as ISIS. Its plight is also creating an opening for Republican presidential candidates to question Clinton’s strategic acumen and to undermine her diplomatic credentials, which will be at the center of her pitch that only she has the global experience needed to be president in a turbulent time.

Gathering questions over Libya also point to one of the central complications of Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination, due to formally launch on Saturday: the fact that she must own a record at the State Department that lacks clear-cut diplomatic triumphs. She’ll also have to answer for misfires in the Obama administration’s wider foreign policy as GOP candidates who have not faced the same tough choices can nitpick her record with the advantage of hindsight.

Collinson uses an interesting construction on that point. The media have chased Republican candidates around the country to offer a hindsight hypothetical about the Iraq War, with varying results. No reporter seems interested in offering “the advantage of hindsight” on the Libyan intervention, which unlike Iraq didn’t get approval from Congress before, during, or after its execution. Why aren’t reporters asking Republicans to weigh in on that decision with the benefit of hindsight, I wonder?

That’s a rhetorical question.

Collinson poses the Libya question as a standoff between the need to choose between “action to avert human carnage or stand by and be accused of abetting genocide,” a construct that Hillary offered as the intervention began. But those were not the only two options on the table, nor were either of them what the Obama administration and NATO chose to do. They could have limited the intervention at attacking the lines of communication between Tripoli and Benghazi to force Qaddafi to halt his planned attack on the eastern city. Instead they chose another option altogether, which was regime change by air attack.

Even that choice had other options, although perhaps politically fraught. Once they decided to declare war on Qaddafi himself rather than just stop his operation against Benghazi, the US and NATO could have put together ground forces to secure the region once Qaddafi fell. Instead, Obama and Hillary both bragged about demonstrating a superior kind of intervention, one that didn’t involve American troops on the ground at all. “We came, we saw, he died,” Hillary chortled after Qaddafi’s death, echoing Julius Caesar with none of his military insight. What followed from the vacuum left in the wake of this style of intervention was entirely predictable.

That’s not just a problem for Hillary Clinton, though. Collinson believes that other Democrats could use it against her in the primaries, but any general election argument for another Democrat in the White House would have to be predicated in large part on continuity with existing policies. That’s especially true on foreign policy, where Democrats can be expected to use The Spectre Of W to argue that Republicans will fall back to a cowboy-diplomacy posture. If they nominate Hillary, of course, they’ll be endorsing the worst and most arrogant aspects of “cowboyism,” which is the arrogance that American power can be used without investment in the theaters involved and produce nothing but good outcomes. At least Bush understood that we needed troops on the ground to control outcomes, even if he underestimated the number it would take to do so.

So yes, Collinson is right that this is a “real” problem for Hillary, but it’s not limited to her.

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