Jo Becker: Hillary Clinton, Foreign Policy and the Question of U.S. Military Intervention

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April 5, 2016 — Jo Becker, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, discussed Hillary Clinton’s role in the U.S. intervention in Libya, which she argues, ultimately contributed to destabilization in the region.

Evaluating Clinton’s role as secretary of state is important since “it can tell you a little bit about how she would act as president,” said Becker. Yet, the bulk of news coverage has focused on the Benghazi attack and hearings, and the email controversy. For her recent New York Times series, Becker decided to instead dig into Clinton’s decision-making process regarding intervention in Libya, an issue where her influence was “pivotal.” The toppling of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime without adequate nation-building support led to Libya’s failure, with the country now serving as a haven for ISIS and contributing to the refugee crisis, said Becker.

It begged the larger question…how did we get into this war?

“It begged the larger question…how did we get into this war?” asked Becker. “And as it fell apart, and as they kept publicly doing the happy talk, did they know what was happening on the ground?” Becker spoke with more than 50 officials in the U.S. and abroad, and what emerged was a “case study in good intentions gone wrong.”

“What I found was really startling,” she said. “In my time as a reporter, I don’t think I’ve ever had a story where so many people went on the record in such anguished, human language – guys like David Petraeus, former CIA director, Robert Gates, former defense secretary, Gérard Araud, French ambassador to the U.S.” Even President Obama has called Libya a mistake, said Becker. In contrast, Clinton has said “it’s too soon to tell.”

“It’s certainly not too soon to tell that it’s destabilized its neighbors, it’s been a big part of creating this refugee crisis in Europe,” said Becker.

Looking back to 2011, Becker said that the administration had a tough choice – they wanted to be on “the right side of history” during the Arab Spring, with the lives of rebels threatened by Gaddafi’s military forces. Clinton met with Libyan rebels who “said all the right things. They’re going to respect women’s rights, and they’re going to have democratic elections, and it’s going to be this great country,” said Becker. “She asked them lots of questions, and it was really clear, in interviewing everybody, that she had Iraq on her mind.”

…it’s destabilized its neighbors, it’s been a big part of creating this refugee crisis in Europe.

Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Gates and President Obama were reluctant to intervene, but they also feared that Gaddafi would have “lined up the tanks and mowed these people down.” Clinton persuaded them to take action by arguing that France and Britain were going to intervene anyway – and if they “screwed it up,” the U.S. would have to come to their rescue. She also made the case that the U.S. had to have “skin in the game” to affect the outcome of events.

But what started as a limited, ten-day intervention to protect civilians in Benghazi expanded into a months-long campaign involving CIA operatives and the supplying of weapons to the Libyan rebels. Thomas Donilon and some of the President’s other advisors counseled against these actions, said Becker, because not enough was known about who the rebels were. Yet Clinton pressed for continued intervention, arguing that “we’re in this and we can’t afford to fail.”

Once Gaddafi was killed, Clinton saw the occasion as cause for celebration, but in reality, “it was the beginning of the end for Libya,” said Becker. “Aides had been preparing all these memos outlining her ‘ownership’ of Libya from start to finish, because they thought it was going to be this great success story, and maybe potentially a cornerstone of her presidential campaign – this was her signature achievement. But it all went south pretty fast.”

“The President had always made clear that we weren’t going to do anything to stand up this government,” said Becker. There was a divide between the people the U.S. had negotiated with, and the people who actually believed themselves to be Libya’s next leaders. There was no plan to disarm or otherwise deal with the militias that ruled the streets of Libya. Democratic elections were publicly cheered, said Becker, although they took place in an atmosphere of militia control and “laid the groundwork for a lot of what would follow.”

“The civil war and ISIS coming into that vacuum happened after she left, but the seeds of it were all in place,” said Becker. “It does raise a lot of questions about whether and when the U.S. should intervene in situations like this, and whether it’s possible even to have a good outcome.”

Clinton had the lessons of Iraq, said Becker, but she also brought with her the experience of President Bill Clinton’s lack of intervention in Rwanda, and late intervention in Bosnia. “She still believes in general that America not only can be a force for good in parts of the world like this, but needs to be, because without us a vacuum is created that is potentially more dangerous.”

Listen to the full audio recording above.

Article and photo by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.