In 2011, as the United States considered intervention, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among those who pushed for intervention—without resolving just how Libya would be governed after Gaddafi, according to a senior defense official who was part of the decision-making process. Obama advisers like Samantha Power and Susan Rice also made the case alongside Clinton. They argued the U.S. had a moral obligation to save lives in Benghazi facing a threatened genocide by Libyan dictator Gaddafi. The only strategy spelled out publicly was that the Europeans’ newly formed “Libyan Transitional Council” would be at the forefront of the effort. Washington was “leading from behind,” to use a famous phrase from the era.
As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who opposed the U.S. intervention, frustratingly explained to The Daily Beast: “We were playing it by ear.”
And the consequences of that improvisation are still being felt today. The country is an epicenter of the refugee crisis sweeping the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Part of Libya is under the control of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. And the Russians use the U.S.-NATO intervention in Libya to justify their own military incursions in places like Syria.
But to Clinton, Libya was—and still remains—a major achievement. “We came, we saw, he died,” she crowed in October 2011. “Smart power at its best” is how Clinton described it during the most recent Democratic debate.