There was a time when I was proud of Obama for being so sensible about Libya, but that was before Secretary Clinton prevailed on him to intervene and led him into what he now acknowledges was the biggest mistake of this presidency. I remember when Steve Clemons said that Defense Secretary Robert Gates was pissed because “Clinton won the bureaucratic battle to use DOD resources to achieve what’s essentially the State Department’s objective… and Obama let it happen.”
I said at the time:
I’m nervous. but so far I am quite proud of how Barack Obama and Robert Gates have resisted calls to get our country overly involved in the situation in Libya. I fear reports of Gaddafi’s demise have been premature. But, probably a much more important consideration than Gaddafi’s fate is the general lack of knowledge about what might follow his regime. I am not concerned about radical Islamists taking over. I don’t think that is likely. I am concerned about no one taking over. I haven’t seen any compelling evidence that there are the makings of a functional government that can unite the country waiting in the wings.
Radical Islamists have been expanding their presence and influence in Libya in recent years, but they haven’t taken over. I was right that the real danger was that no one would take over.
Here’s something else I said:
What disturbs me is the absolutely thoughtless way that so many Americans and American leaders are willing to commit our country to the use of violence and meddling in other countries. In some cases it is justifiable, but can someone do a week of research before they start sending in the 82nd Airborne?
I mean, Jesus, seriously…
And I praised Robert Gates for correctly noting that “the No. 1 lesson of Iraq: That once the United States plays a major role in the ouster of a Middle Eastern leader, it bears responsibility for whatever state emerges in its place.”
I also said this about the idea of imposing just a no-fly zone:
We have marginal corporate interests in the country, and we don’t want to see their oil off the market if that is going to lead to severe energy inflation in Europe. But that argues for stability, not for a sustained period of civil war and uncertainty.
Getting Gaddafi to resign does nothing to assure stability. Who says that his opponents are unified? Who says they will agree to split the spoils equitably? Saddam ruled his country the way he did not only because he was a sadist but because the country would tear apart at the seams without some heavy-hand to keep things in order. The same may well be true about Gaddafi. I’m not opposed to the idea of democracy for Libyans, but we shouldn’t get too invested in the idea. There’s no evidence that Libya is ripe for parliamentary democracy. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, let’s make sure we’re not to blame.
If someone wants to risk getting themselves into a decades-long commitment to “overseeing” Libyan affairs, let it not be NATO and the United States, but some coalition of regional players, including Arab ones, or let it be done by the United Nations if that is possible.
Kristof is too-willing to commit us without answering difficult questions. Gen. Merrill McPeak says, “Just flying a few jets across the top of the friendlies would probably be enough to ground the Libyan Air Force, which is the objective.” Well, who are the friendlies? Are we going to consider anyone who is fighting Gaddafi to be a friendly? Do we even know these people? What makes this tribe better than that one? Do we even care? And is grounding the Libyan Air Force really the objective? No, of course not. The objective of a no-fly zone is regime change. Once you commit to it, you are committed forever, or until there is a regime change. Unless the objective is to burn cash and gas flying planes over northern Africa, a decision to impose a no-fly zone is a decision to oust Gaddafi.
There are obviously costs and risks to our pilots, but as Iraq demonstrated, there are unintended consequences. There is blowback.
I keep saying this. Libya is not our problem. It’s not our responsibility to determine who will govern Libya. We can be prepared to intervene to prevent widescale slaughter of innocent civilians, but this isn’t a war between civilians and Gaddafi, but a war between armed groups representing different regions and tribes with different interests.
And I just kept getting more vehement in my insistence that we should not commit to Libya with no plan for the day after:
Let me say this again. We don’t know what kind of leadership would emerge from this opposition if they were to prevail, but they don’t even appear to have operational leadership in the field. We have no compelling reason to commit ourselves to this fight. It’s a mistake. And the president has been pushed very far out on a limb here, probably through a false sense of momentum arising from the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. It will be painful to walk this back, but unless Hillary Clinton discovers a compelling, organized opposition in Benghazi when she arrives there this week, our commitment to regime change in Libya should be scaled back. It’s not our problem. Obama is in the process of making it our problem. We should stand ready to prevent massacres and offer asylum, but should not commit our military to do what the rebels cannot do themselves.
And, so, as his presidency comes into its final lap, Obama says:
A failure to adequately plan for the aid and governing of Libya after the U.S.-led NATO attacks in 2011 “probably” was his biggest error in office, President Barack Obama said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
Asked by host Chris Wallace about the “worst mistake” of his soon-to-end White House years, Obama listed the aftermath of the ouster and death of Moammar Qaddafi, even as he defended the intervention.
“Probably failing to plan for the day after,” Obama said in the session, which was taped at the University of Chicago on April 7.
Almost everyone pressured Obama to intervene, from our closest European allies, to the Arab League, to the Republicans who accused him of being soft, to the humanitarian activists in the Democratic Party, to some of his key foreign policy advisers. No one was more important than Hillary Clinton, however:
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Yahoo News in January that he thought Clinton’s “influence was pivotal in persuading the president to broaden the goal in Libya beyond just saving the people in Benghazi” from Qaddafi’s forces and “essentially focusing more on regime change. The president told me that it was one of the closest decisions he’d ever made, sort of 51-49, and I’m not sure that he would’ve made that decision if Secretary Clinton hadn’t supported it.”
It was a close call and Obama’s instincts were all correct. He went against his instincts and he’ll aways regret it. It could have cost him his presidency, and he’s lucky that it didn’t.
If you want to know why I won’t endorse Clinton, it’s because of my utter lack of faith in her foreign policy judgment. I may be more liberal than she is on a lot of domestic policy, but I’m comfortable with her working with Congress on the budget and appropriations. I think she’ll come up with a pretty strong Justice Department and have a decent regulatory scheme.
I just do not want her making the last call on tough foreign policy decisions.
And it’s not Iraq that is the worrisome example of what I’m talking about. Iraq was a mistake a lot of people made, and it wasn’t in any way her decision.
Libya is her baby, and I’m still angry that she convinced Obama to be the father of that fiasco.