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This Clinton email about Libya looks terrible in hindsight

A rebel fighter in Libya in March 2011, during the country's civil war.
A rebel fighter in Libya in March 2011, during the country's civil war.
John Moore/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Libya today is a total disaster. And even during the US-led intervention, State Department officials "heard no good answers" from top Libyan officials on one of the country's biggest problems, according to an email sent to Hillary Clinton's private account released by the department on Friday.

Huma Abedin, a key adviser to Clinton, forwarded the secretary a bleak assessment of the country on August 21, 2011 — when the US-backed rebels were taking control of Tripoli, Libya's capital.

The official's assessment of the National Transitional Council (TNC), the organization tasked with putting Libya after the war, is pretty brutal. One of Libya's biggest problems — in fact, what turned out to be its biggest problem — was the growth of unaccountable, violent, occasionally Islamist militias that made it impossible for the central government to impose order. And according to the official, identified only as Jeff, the Libyans had basically no plan for dealing with this obvious, fatal problem.

"On reining in the militias," Jeff wrote, "we heard no good answers." Some Libyan leaders relied "on luck or tried to avert their eyes from the problem that militias could post [sic] on the day after."

militias jeff clinton email

(State Department)

Today, Libya is cleft in two: the internationally recognized government based in the east is fighting a militia umbrella movement called Libya Dawn, which contains Islamist elements. Even more radical Islamist groups, including an ISIS franchise, have taken root in the country. This chaos is direct outgrowth of the government's inability to get control over the militias and assert itself as an effective government throughout the country.

The lines about militias in the email aren't the only interesting ones. When the Americans pressed the TNC leaders on postwar security — preventing revenge killings and other such things — the Libyans pushed "luck, tribal discipline, and the 'gentle character' of the Libyan people as the best assurances against abuse and revenge killing."

libya revenge killings email

(State Department)

In 2013, Human Rights Watch reported systematic assaults against the people of Tawergha, a town whose residents allegedly supported Gaddafi in the civil war. "The forced displacement of roughly 40,000 people, arbitrary detentions, torture, and killings are widespread, systematic, and sufficiently organized to be crimes against humanity," HRW wrote.

So much for Libya's "gentle spirit."

The point here is clear: Libya's biggest problem after the revolution, uncontrollable militia violence that totally undermined any attempt to build a new society, was obvious even before the war was over.

At the same time, the Clinton State Department was crafting a narrative of success. A separate email from Clinton Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan, sent to other Clinton aides on the same day, touted Clinton's "instrumental" role in launching America's intervention in Libya and "tightening the noose around [Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi] and his regime." While it's true that the defeat of Gaddafi's regime was a major victory for the administration, the postwar problems flagged in Abedin's email to Clinton may end up making it a hollow one.