‘We know what the U.S. can do with bombs,’ a Libyan student said. ‘What else can you do?’

In a 12,000-word two-part report for the New York Times on the U.S. intervention in Libya and Hillary Clinton’s role in it, Jo Becker and Scott Shane write: President Obama has called failing to do more in Libya his biggest foreign policy lesson. And Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United Nations during the revolution, is deeply troubled by the aftermath of the 2011 intervention: the Islamic State only “300 miles from Europe,” a refugee crisis that “is a human tragedy as well as a political one” and the destabilization of much of West Africa.

“You have to make a moral choice: a blood bath in Benghazi and keeping Qaddafi in power, or what is happening now,” Mr. Araud said. “It is a tough question, because now Western national interests are very much impacted by what is happening in Libya.”

It was late afternoon on March 15, 2011, and Mr. Araud had just left the office when his phone rang. It was his American counterpart, Susan E. Rice, with a pointed message.

France and Britain were pushing hard for a Security Council vote on a resolution supporting a no-fly zone in Libya to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from slaughtering his opponents. Ms. Rice was calling to push back, in characteristically salty language.

“She says, and I quote, ‘You are not going to drag us into your shitty war,’” said Mr. Araud, now France’s ambassador in Washington. “She said, ‘We’ll be obliged to follow and support you, and we don’t want to.’ The conversation got tense. I answered, ‘France isn’t a U.S. subsidiary.’ It was the Obama policy at the time that they didn’t want a new Arab war.”

In the preceding weeks, a series of high-level meetings had grappled with the escalating rebellion, and some younger White House aides believed the president should join the international effort.

But a far more formidable lineup was outspoken against an American commitment, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Tom Donilon, the national security adviser; and Mr. Gates, the defense secretary, who did not want to divert American air power or attention away from Afghanistan and Iraq. If the Europeans were so worried about Libya, they argued, let them take responsibility for its future.

“I think at one point I said, ‘Can I finish the two wars I’m already in before you guys go looking for a third one?’” Mr. Gates recalled. Colonel Qaddafi, he said, “was not a threat to us anywhere. He was a threat to his own people, and that was about it.”

Some senior intelligence officials had deep misgivings about what would happen if Colonel Qaddafi lost control. In recent years, the Libyan dictator had begun aiding the United States in its fight against Al Qaeda in North Africa.

“He was a thug in a dangerous neighborhood,” said Michael T. Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency at the time. “But he was keeping order.”

Then there was Secretary Clinton. Early in Mr. Obama’s presidency, she had worked hard to win the trust of the man who had bested her in a tough primary campaign in 2008, and she sometimes showed anxiety about being cut out of his inner circle. (In one 2009 email, she fretted to aides: “I heard on the radio that there is a Cabinet mtg this am. Is there? Can I go?”)

Mrs. Clinton had cultivated a close relationship with Mr. Gates. Both tended to be more hawkish than the president. They had raised concerns about how rapidly he wanted to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. More recently, they had argued that Mr. Obama should not be too hasty in dropping support for Hosni Mubarak, the embattled Egyptian leader, whom Mrs. Clinton had known since her years as the first lady.

But they had lost out to the younger aides — “the backbenchers,” Mr. Gates called them, who he said argued that in the moral clash of the Arab Spring, “Mr. President, you’ve got to be on the right side of history.”

In Libya, Mrs. Clinton had a new opportunity to support the historic change that had just swept out the leaders of its neighbors Egypt and Tunisia. And Libya seemed a tantalizingly easy case — with just six million people, no sectarian divide and plenty of oil.

Jake Sullivan, Mrs. Clinton’s top foreign-policy aide at State and now in her campaign, said her view was that “we have to live in a world of risks.” In assessing the situation in Libya, he said, “she didn’t know for certain at the time, nor did any of us, what would happen — only that it passed a risk threshold that demanded that we look very hard at the response.”

So, after some initial doubts, Mrs. Clinton diverged from the other senior members of the administration.

The comparison with Mr. Biden was revealing. For the vice president, according to Antony J. Blinken, then his national security adviser and now deputy secretary of state, the lesson of Iraq was crucial — “what Biden called not the day after, but the decade after.”

“What’s the plan?” Mr. Blinken continued. “There is going to be some kind of vacuum, and how’s it going to be filled, and what are we doing to fill it?” Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous adage about Iraq — if “you break it, you own it” — loomed large.

More decisive for Mrs. Clinton were two episodes from her husband’s presidency — the American failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the success, albeit belated, in bringing together an international military coalition to prevent greater bloodshed after 8,000 Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war.

“The thing about Rwanda that’s important is it showed the cost of inaction,” said James B. Steinberg, who served as Mrs. Clinton’s deputy through July 2011. “But I think the reason Bosnia and Kosovo figured so importantly is they demonstrated there were ways of being effective and there were lessons of what worked and didn’t work.”

On the same March afternoon when Ambassador Rice was telling her French colleague at the United Nations to back off, President Obama and his security cabinet were arrayed in the White House situation room. Speaking on the video screen from Cairo was Secretary Clinton, just arrived from Paris.

The day before, at lunch with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, she “was tough, she was bullish” on the idea of intervention in Libya — the “perfect ally,” recalled Mr. Sarkozy’s senior diplomatic adviser, Jean-David Levitte.

But now Mrs. Clinton did not directly push Mr. Obama to intervene in Libya. Nor did she make an impassioned moral case, according to several people in the room.

Instead, she described Mr. Jibril, the opposition leader, as impressive and reasonable. She conveyed her surprise that Arab leaders not only supported military action but, in some cases, were willing to participate. Mostly, though, she warned that the French and British would go ahead with airstrikes on their own, potentially requiring the United States to step in later if things went badly.

Dennis B. Ross, then a senior Middle East expert at the National Security Council, said he remembered listening to her and thinking, “If she’s advocating, she’s advocating in what I would describe as a fairly clever way.”

He recalled her saying: “‘You don’t see what the mood is here, and how this has a kind of momentum of its own. And we will be left behind, and we’ll be less capable of shaping this.’”

Mrs. Clinton’s account of a unified European-Arab front powerfully influenced Mr. Obama. “Because the president would never have done this thing on our own,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser.

The Libyans [loyal to Qaddafi] saw the threatened intervention not as a noble act to save lives, as Mrs. Clinton portrayed it, but in far darker terms. After all, Colonel Qaddafi, fearing the fate of Saddam Hussein, had abandoned his nuclear program and was sharing intelligence with the C.I.A. in the fight against Al Qaeda. Mrs. Clinton herself had publicly welcomed one of the leader’s sons to the State Department in 2009.

Now Colonel Qaddafi saw deep treachery, ingratitude and mercantile revenge. He railed to anyone who would listen that he was Libya’s only bulwark against extremism, that without him the country would become a terrorist haven.

Early on, President Obama had declared that Colonel Qaddafi had lost his legitimacy and had to go. But the president was careful to point out that this was the administration’s political position, not its military objective.

“We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal, specifically the protection of civilians in Libya,” he said. Mrs. Clinton echoed that five days after the Security Council resolution was adopted. “There is nothing in there about getting rid of anybody,” she told ABC News.

The president directed the Pentagon to use its unique military capabilities to stop the feared massacre and, within 10 days, turn the operation over to European and Arab allies. An unnamed aide described this approach as “leading from behind,” handing the president’s Republican opponents an enduring talking point. But Mr. Obama was adamant that Libya would not become another protracted American war.

In fact, his limited goal was achieved far faster than planned. “We basically destroyed Qaddafi’s air defenses and stopped the advance of his forces within three days,” recalled Mr. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser.

But the mission quickly evolved from protecting civilians in Benghazi to protecting civilians wherever they were. As the rebellion swelled and bystanders became combatants, the endgame became ever more murky. The United States and its allies were increasingly drawn to one side of the fighting, without extended debate over what that shift portended.

The American military involvement that Mr. Obama had hoped to curtail after 10 days had dragged on for months, and political support was waning. Some members of Congress were outraged over the administration’s failure to seek approval after 60 days, as the War Powers Act seemed to require.

Onetime advocates of the intervention, including Ms. Slaughter, the secretary’s former policy planning director, had grown disillusioned over the rebels’ human-rights abuses.

“We did not try to protect civilians on Qaddafi’s side,” said Ms. Slaughter, who at the time called for a deal in which Colonel Qaddafi would have turned over power to one of his sons.

The international coalition that Mrs. Clinton had stitched together was also unraveling. Russia accused the United States and its allies of a bait-and-switch, and the Arab League called for a cease-fire and settlement.

The first news reports of Colonel Qaddafi’s capture and killing in October 2011 reached the secretary of state in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she had just sat down for a televised interview. “Wow!” she said, looking at an aide’s BlackBerry before cautiously noting that the report had not yet been confirmed. But Hillary Clinton seemed impatient for a conclusion to the multinational military intervention she had done so much to organize, and in a rare unguarded moment, she dropped her reserve.

“We came, we saw, he died!” she exclaimed.

Two days before, Mrs. Clinton had taken a triumphal tour of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and for weeks top aides had been circulating a “ticktock” that described her starring role in the events that had led to this moment. The timeline, her top policy aide, Jake Sullivan, wrote, demonstrated Mrs. Clinton’s “leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish.” The memo’s language put her at the center of everything: “HRC announces … HRC directs … HRC travels … HRC engages,” it read.

It was a brag sheet for a cabinet member eyeing a presidential race, and the Clinton team’s eagerness to claim credit for her prompted eye-rolling at the White House and the Pentagon. Some joked that to hear her aides tell it, she had practically called in the airstrikes herself.

But there were plenty of signs that the triumph would be short-lived, that the vacuum left by Colonel Qaddafi’s death invited violence and division.

In fact, on the same August day that Mr. Sullivan had compiled his laudatory memo, the State Department’s top Middle East hand, Jeffrey D. Feltman, had sent a lengthy email with an utterly different tone about what he had seen on his own visit to Libya.

The country’s interim leaders seemed shockingly disengaged, he wrote. Mahmoud Jibril, the acting prime minister, who had helped persuade Mrs. Clinton to back the opposition, was commuting from Qatar, making only “cameo” appearances. A leading rebel general had been assassinated, underscoring the hazard of “revenge killings.” Islamists were moving aggressively to seize power, and members of the anti-Qaddafi coalition, notably Qatar, were financing them.

On a task of the utmost urgency, disarming the militia fighters who had dethroned the dictator but now threatened the nation’s unity, Mr. Feltman reported an alarming lassitude. Mr. Jibril and his associates, he wrote, “tried to avert their eyes” from the problem that militias could pose on “the Day After.”

In short, the well-intentioned men who now nominally ran Libya were relying on “luck, tribal discipline and the ‘gentle character’ of the Libyan people” for a peaceful future. “We will continue to push on this,” he wrote.

In the ensuing months, Mr. Feltman’s memo would prove hauntingly prescient. But Libya’s Western allies, preoccupied by domestic politics and the crisis in Syria, would soon relegate the country to the back burner.

And Mrs. Clinton would be mostly a bystander as the country dissolved into chaos, leading to a civil war that would destabilize the region, fueling the refugee crisis in Europe and allowing the Islamic State to establish a Libyan haven that the United States is now desperately trying to contain.

On Jan. 5, Mrs. Clinton’s old friend and adviser Sidney Blumenthal emailed her with the latest in a series of behind-the-scenes reports on Libya, largely written by a retired C.I.A. officer, Tyler Drumheller, who died last year.

The memo detailed the roiling tensions between Islamists and secularists over the role of Islamic law, fighting between rival militias associated with two different towns and four visits to Mr. Keib’s office by “angry militiamen” demanding concessions.

Mr. Keib, the email said, “believes that if he does not disarm the militias and meet their demands in the next six months, there is a good chance of increased fighting among rival groups that could lead to civil war.” Mrs. Clinton forwarded the message to Mr. Sullivan, her policy aide, with a single comment: “Worrying.”

Such alarming reports might have been expected to spur action in Washington. They did not.

After Colonel Qaddafi’s fall, with minimal violence and friendly interim leadership, Libya had moved quickly off the top of the administration’s agenda. The regular situation room meetings on Libya, often including the president, simply stopped. The revolt in Syria, in the heart of the Middle East and with nearly four times Libya’s population, took center stage.

Libya, Mr. Ross said, “was farmed out to the working level.”

The inattention was not just neglect. It was policy.

In the fall of 2012, American intelligence agencies produced a classified assessment of the proliferation of arms from Libya. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” said Michael T. Flynn, then head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “We’ve not had that kind of proliferation of weapons since really the end of the Vietnam War.”

A cynical line would begin to circulate in Washington: In Iraq, the United States had intervened and occupied — and things had gone to hell. In Libya, the United States had intervened but not occupied — and things had gone to hell. And in Syria, the United States had neither intervened nor occupied — and things had still gone to hell.

It was a dark jest designed to shift blame from baffled American policy makers to a troubled region. But it raised a serious question about Libya: If overthrowing a hated dictator in a small and relatively rich country produced such epic troubles, was American intervention ever justified?

“It’s true that things went wrong,” said Mr. Sagezli, of the warriors commission. “But from a Libyan point of view, things could not go right. We had 42 years of Qaddafi’s rule, no infrastructure, a terrible education system, thousands of political prisoners, divisions among tribes, destruction of the army. When you have such a state, when you take out the dictator, it’s like taking the cover off the pot.”

Given that background, Ms. Whitson, who monitored Libya for Human Rights Watch, thought the United States’ failure to follow up was unforgivable.

“If you are going to carry out a military intervention to decapitate the government, you are making a commitment to the stability of that country over the long haul,” she said. “Doing nothing, as we did here? A bunch of eighth graders can agree that is not an approach that is going to work.”

The history that Mrs. Clinton often cited should have been instructive, Ms. Whitson said. “In Bosnia, yes, we intervened. But there’s been peacekeeping troops there for 20 years,” she said.

Strikingly, President Obama said in 2014 that such criticism was just, and that Libya had provided his biggest lesson in foreign policy. [Continue reading…]

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