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The debate showed why Hillary Clinton is vulnerable on Libya

For all the talk about the terrorist attacks that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi in 2012, there had been precious little public attention paid to the aspect of the US engagement in Libya that is much trickier politically for Hillary Clinton. That is, until CNN Democratic debate moderator Anderson Cooper pushed Clinton and war-wary former Sen. Jim Webb into an exchange on the merits of the war Tuesday night.

It's tough territory for Clinton because Stevens wouldn't have been in Benghazi but for Clinton's diplomacy, her belief that Libya could transition into something resembling a stable democracy, and her choice of Stevens, a practitioner of "expeditionary diplomacy," to run the US Embassy. It will be an even sharper point of foreign policy contrast for her if Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the US bombardment of Libya, enters the presidential race. And with Clinton due to testify before the House Benghazi committee October 22, it was a reminder that she'll still have to defend herself on Capitol Hill.

The point isn't, as some Republicans argue, that Clinton is to blame for Stevens's death — the terrorists who attacked two American facilities are. But President Barack Obama's decision to use US force to topple strongman Muammar Qaddafi rested in large part on Clinton's advocacy and her work to create the international coalition that ultimately took him out. And Webb, along with many Republicans, believes it was a mistake that set the stage for the Benghazi attacks.

For Clinton, questions about the US role in Libya broadly, and about Benghazi specifically, represent a political thicket. Many Democrats, including a strong contingent of liberals in Congress, were uncomfortable with both the mission and Obama's decision to launch airstrikes without congressional approval. It's the same set that believes Clinton might be too inclined to deploy US military force as president. On the other hand, Republicans at the time criticized Obama for dallying in taking action in Libya, then transitioned to blaming him and Clinton for going around Congress, presiding over Libya's descent into chaos, and failing to prevent the terrorist attacks in Benghazi.

All of that set the stage for Cooper to ask Webb about his view that the US should never have engaged militarily in Libya and that the Benghazi assault was an "inevitable" outcome of the US effort to help stand up a new government there. It was the moment that most fits into the Republican line of attack on Clinton's foreign policy if she's the nominee, and Webb gingerly played into it.

"This is not about Benghazi per se," Webb said. "To me it is the inevitability of something like Benghazi occurring in the way that we intervened in Libya. We had no treaties at risk. We had no Americans at risk. There was no threat of attack or imminent attack."

He went on to critique Obama's decision to strike without the express consent of Congress.

"There is plenty of time for a president to come to the Congress and request authority to use military force in that situation," Webb said. "I called for it on the Senate floor again and again. I called for it in Senate hearings. It is not a wise thing to do."

One of Clinton's toughest challenges is convincing the Democratic base to nominate the primary candidate who is the most comfortable with the use of military force.

Clinton's role in Obama's Libya strategy

At the time, in March 2011, Qaddafi's forces were moving east from Tripoli toward the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Clinton joined with several other Obama advisers, including then-UN Rep. Susan Rice, current UN Rep. Samantha Power, and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, in arguing that the US had a humanitarian responsibility to prevent Qaddafi from slaughtering thousands of his own people.

Clinton flew to Paris to negotiate with her European counterparts and assess the capabilities of Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of a group called the Transitional National Council that argued it had a plan for governing Libya if Qaddafi were deposed. She then went to Cairo to secure assurances that Arab nations would participate in an international military action against Qaddafi. When she reported back to the Situation Room, Clinton told Obama and his National Security Council that Jibril had a solid plan and that she thought the international coalition was coming together.

There was significant disagreement within the National Security Council. Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were dead set against the mission, arguing that the US interests in Libya weren't clear, that the military was stretched, and that it might not be wise to start a third war in a Muslim country. Ultimately, Obama was swayed by Clinton and the humanitarian-interventionist wing of his foreign policy team and ordered the US to participate in airstrikes against Libya. A couple of weeks later, Stevens, who was not yet ambassador, was dispatched to Benghazi to be the State Department's liaison to the Transitional National Council. He snuck in on a Greek cargo ship.

Stevens was picked for that role, and later made ambassador, specifically because of his experience in the region and his belief in a brand of diplomacy — called "expeditionary diplomacy" — that emphasizes on-the-ground work in conflict zones. Webb argued Tuesday night that Stevens's death was a foreseeable outcome of the US effort to oust Qaddafi.

Clinton defended the Libya mission and sending Stevens

Cooper pushed Clinton to defend herself on both the strikes in Libya and Benghazi. She responded by laying out her view of what's happened in Libya since the US intervention, as well as her belief in deploying American diplomats to unstable regions of the world.

"I think it's important, since I understand Senator Webb's very strong feelings about this, to explain where we were then and to point out that I think President Obama made the right decision at the time," she said. "And the Libyan people had a free election the first time since 1951. You know what, they voted for moderates, they voted with the hope of democracy. Because of the Arab Spring, because of a lot of other things. There was turmoil to be followed. Unless you believe the United States should not send diplomats to anyplace that is dangerous, which I do not, then when we send them forth, there is always the potential for danger and risk."

This isn't a new line of argument from Clinton, but it was probably the first time that many Americans heard her make it. She essentially said that the intervention was the right thing to do and that the US can't allow the tragic deaths of four Americans as an excuse to avoid sending diplomats to dangerous parts of the world. As secretary, she successfully lobbied to place funding for US diplomatic posts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, where embassies and consulates were under threat, into a war-spending account that protected it from major congressional cuts.

What is actually happening in Libya

The hope of Clinton and other Obama administration officials who supported the 2011 airstrikes in Libya was that the leadership group among the rebels would be able to take control of the country and stabilize it in Qaddafi's absence. That proved a tall order, and the country descended into chaos in the aftermath of his removal.

The terrorist assault against the US diplomatic and intelligence facilities in Benghazi, one of many attacks on diplomatic officials from around the world there, was symptomatic of the lawlessness that dominated Libya after Qaddafi was ousted and killed.

The truth is that warring factions have divided and destroyed Libya since 2011, leaving tenuous hope that the country can be held together. Already, multiple governments have risen and fallen. The UN has drafted a peace plan, but a rival faction to the current government rejected it earlier this week.

From a humanitarian perspective, the US mission was successful in preventing Qaddafi from making good on his vow to slaughter thousands of his own people. But on a governance level, the American-backed Libyan leaders weren't able to quickly stabilize the country and take control.

The most important Benghazi moment wasn't about Libya

It's easy to forget, but Clinton's email scandal arose in part out of House Republicans appointing a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks. That's actually given her an opening to fight back on both the email and Benghazi matters because House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently tied the committee's work to Clinton's sagging poll numbers, an admission of the political nature of the panel's probe.

"Let's just take a minute here and point out that this committee is basically an arm of the Republican national committee. It is a partisan vehicle as admitted by the House Republican Majority Leader, Mr. McCarthy, to drive down my poll numbers. Big surprise," Clinton said during the debate. "That's what they have attempted to do. I am still standing."

Given an opportunity to hammer Clinton on the email scandal, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders instead opted to join hands with her.

"I think the secretary is right. And that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails," he said.

What it all means for Clinton going forward

While most Republican critics of Clinton have been hyper-focused on Clinton's email and the Benghazi attacks as evidence that she performed poorly as secretary of state, some, like Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), have criticized her for being overly optimistic about the possibility that a functional democracy could take root in Libya.

The degree to which Republicans can use the broader Libya argument against her will depend in large part on whether their eventual nominee is a candidate who supported or opposed using force in Libya. Either way, Clinton showed that she will defend not only the decision to go in but also her emphasis on expeditionary diplomacy.

Going into the debate, Benghazi and the US's part in the ouster of Qaddafi were potentially risky topics for her. Walking away, they provided insight into how she'll handle the Republican attacks that show no signs of subsiding.

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