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Obama and Clinton learned very different lessons from the Libya war

Obama and Clinton at a ceremony receiving the remains of Americans killed in the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama and Clinton at a ceremony receiving the remains of Americans killed in the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
(Molly Riley/Pool/Getty Images)

In 2011, the United States and several European countries intervened in Libya's civil war, ultimately helping to topple dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Today, everybody agrees that Libya is a disaster. It has two competing, warring governments — neither of which actually runs the country. Militias roam freely. ISIS controls an entire city (Sirte), as well as a 175-mile strip across the eastern coastline.

So what should the United States take from this experience? This question turns out to divide the two people most responsible for launching the US intervention: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Both Obama and Clinton agree on what went wrong in Libya. Both think the US was unprepared for the aftermath of Qaddafi's fall, and that the international community failed to head off the chaos that predictably came from regime change.

But where Obama sees a cautionary tale about the limits of US power, Clinton sees a story about America failing to use that power when it should have. And that speaks to perhaps one of the most profound foreign policy differences between Obama and his possible heir to the mantle of Democratic leadership.

Obama's lesson: There are limits to American power

Barack Obama sad (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

This issue has been raised mostly recently by an excellent New York Times series (in two parts, here and here) on the US decision to intervene and its aftermath. It positions Clinton and Obama as the key decision-makers; while Obama ultimately had to approve the US mission, it was Clinton who convinced the somewhat reluctant president to do it.

As the postwar situation worsened, the Times piece notes, the two leaders started to take somewhat different tones. Obama didn't quite regret the intervention — he told Thomas Friedman in 2014 that there would have been "more death, more disruption, more destruction" without it — but expressed regret for his management of the aftermath.

"We [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this," Obama said. "That’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?'"

The answer, Obama has suggested in subsequent interviews, is that we may not have that answer.

"We're going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don't have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out," he said in a 2015 interview with Vox's Matt Yglesias. "To some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way."

His implication seems to be that the United States is not in a position to lead a major reconstruction effort in every Libya-like failed state, nor would such an effort necessarily even work.

Clinton's lesson: American inaction is the real problem

Hillary Clinton
Clinton campaigns in Waterloo, Iowa. (Joe Raedle/Getty)
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Clinton's lesson, by contrast, isn't that the US couldn't have handled the aftermath of the Libya intervention properly; it's that it didn't.

The Times piece articulates this well:

"I think it sometimes shows American impatience," she said in 2014, "that, ‘O.K., you got rid of this dictator who destroyed institutions. Why aren’t you behaving like a mature democracy?’ That doesn’t happen overnight."

Yet if, for Mr. Obama, the Libyan experience has underscored doubts about the United States’ power to shape outcomes in other countries, it has demonstrated for Mrs. Clinton just how crucial an American presence can be.

"We have learned the hard way when America is absent, especially from unstable places, there are consequences," she said at a House hearing on Benghazi in October, articulating what sounded like a guiding principle. "Extremism takes root, aggressors seek to fill the vacuum, and security everywhere is threatened, including here at home."

This fits with Clinton's broader understanding of foreign policy, one that (per the Times piece) dates at least back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Clinton, in Libya and other cases, sees failure as primarily the consequences of American inaction rather than the limits of US might.

Why this matters

libya
A gunman in Benghazi.
(Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images)

This difference in worldview has persisted through the two leaders' careers. Go back to the 2008 presidential primary, for example, and you see Clinton taking a far more aggressive tone on the need to use force against terrorists — to say nothing of their differing views of the Iraq War.

It's less that Obama and Clinton were shaped by the aftermath of the Libya war, and more that it brought out existing disagreements between the two leaders.

While Clinton has so far run her campaign in the Democratic primary promising to extend Obama's foreign policy, their disagreement over Libya suggests there are real places where she would behave differently.

If she is elected, she will face new, unexpected challenges. No one expected Obama to have to deal with the Arab Spring, for example. And Clinton will bring the lessons of Libya to these unexpected challenges.

The instincts that a president brings to bear on foreign policy really matter. Syria is a great example: In 2012, Clinton supported administration officials such as CIA Chief David Petraeus who were pushing Obama to arm the rebels, and he overruled them. If she had been president, and he secretary of state, America's policy might have been different, and with it perhaps even the course of Syria's war, for better or for worse.

A President Clinton would see the any future problems relating to intervention and failed states at least somewhat differently than does President Obama, and would at least potentially choose different policies. These challenges are likely to recur, so the difference between them matters.