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The Libya Gamble: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Push for War & the Making of a Failed State

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The New York Times has published a major two-part exposé titled “The Libya Gamble” on how then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed President Obama to begin bombing Libya five years ago this month. Today, Libya is a failed state and a haven for terrorists. How much should Hillary Clinton be blamed for the crisis? We speak to journalist Scott Shane of The New York Times.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Five years ago this month, the United States and allied nations began bombing Libya, striking forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The Obama administration said the strikes were needed to enforce a no-fly zone and to protect Libyan protesters who took to the streets as part of the Arab Spring. Inside the Obama administration, there was a deep division over whether the U.S. should intervene militarily. One of the most hawkish members of Obama’s Cabinet was Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state.

The New York Times has just published two major pieces [part one, part two] looking at Clinton’s role pushing for the bombing of Libya. The special report is titled “The Libya Gamble.” In a moment, we’ll be joined by Scott Shane, one of the report’s co-authors, but first a video package produced by The New York Times.

JO BECKER: Hillary Clinton’s role in the military intervention that ousted Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is getting new scrutiny as she runs for president. The U.S. relationship with Libya has long been complicated. Colonel Gaddafi, who ruled from 1969 until 2011, was an eccentric dictator linked to terrorism. Still, when he gave up his nuclear program a decade ago and provided information about al-Qaeda, he became an ally of sorts. In 2009, when Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state, she welcomed one of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons to Washington.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: We deeply value the relationship between the United States and Libya.

JO BECKER: But two years later, when Colonel Gaddafi threatened to crush the Arab Spring protests in Libya, she helped persuade President Obama to join other countries in bombing his forces to prevent a feared massacre.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: This operation has already saved many lives, but the danger is far from over.

JO BECKER: The military campaign ended up ousting Colonel Gaddafi, and Secretary Clinton was welcomed to Libya on a victory tour. A few days later, Colonel Gaddafi was killed by opposition fighters.


JO BECKER: But the new Western-backed government proved incapable of uniting Libya. And in the end, the strongman’s death led to chaos. When four Americans were killed by terrorists in Benghazi in 2012, it revealed just how bad things had gotten. Colonel Gaddafi’s huge arsenal of weapons has shown up in the hands of terrorists in places like Gaza, Syria, Nigeria and Mali. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have fled through Libya on boats. Many have drowned. And the power vacuum has allowed ISIS to build its most dangerous outpost on the Libyan coast. Today, just 300 miles from Europe, Libya is a failed state. Meanwhile, back at home, Mrs. Clinton has struggled to defend the decision to intervene.

HILLARY CLINTON: But I’m not giving up on Libya, and I don’t think anybody should. We’ve been at this a couple of years.

MARTHA RADDATZ: But were mistakes made?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, there’s always a retrospective to say what mistakes were made. But I know that we offered a lot of help, and I know it was difficult for the Libyans to accept help.

AMY GOODMAN: That video by The New York Times accompanies a major two-part series [part one, part two] on Hillary Clinton titled “The Libya Gamble,” written by Jo Becker and Scott Shane. Scott Shane is joining us now from Baltimore. He’s also author of a new book called Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone, about the first American deliberately killed in a drone strike, Anwar al-Awlaki. The book just won the 2016 Lionel Gelber Prize.

Scott Shane, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s start with this two-part series, “Clinton, 'Smart Power' and a Dictator’s Fall.” Talk about Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and how she led the charge, or what she advised President Obama in Libya.

SCOTT SHANE: Well, five years ago, there were—there was a question about what to do as Gaddafi’s forces approached Benghazi. The Europeans and the Arab League were calling for action. No one really knew what the outcome would be, but there was certainly a very serious threat to a large number of civilians in Benghazi. But, you know, the U.S. was still involved in two big wars, and the sort of heavyweights in the Obama administration were against getting involved—Robert Gates, the defensive secretary; Joe Biden, the vice president; Tom Donilon, the national security adviser.

And Secretary Clinton had been meeting with representatives of Britain, France and the Arab countries. And she sort of essentially called in from Paris and then from Cairo, and she ended up tipping the balance and essentially convincing President Obama, who later described this as a 51-49 decision, to join the other countries in the coalition to bomb Gaddafi’s forces.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Hillary Clinton has argued, in her defense, that it’s still too early to tell what the effects of the intervention have been, and that perhaps accounts for why she’s pushing for more military involvement in Syria. But Obama, on the other hand, as you point out in your piece, says the Libya experience has made him question each military intervention by asking, “Should we intervene militarily? Do we have an answer for the day after?” So, Scott Shane, can you lay out what you explain happened in Libya the day after, as it were?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, you know, for a few months, it looked like things might go reasonably well. There was some attention to restoring Libya’s oil industry. And the optimism was based in part on the idea that this is a relatively small country population-wise, about 6 million people. It did not have the Sunni-Shia split that you see in many Muslim countries, and it had plenty of money from oil to rebuild. So, briefly, there was this sort of moment of optimism. And Secretary Clinton made her visit. And they were—you know, her people were actually thinking this would be perhaps a centerpiece of her record as secretary of state.

But what happened was the militias that had participated in the fight against Gaddafi, you know, essentially aligned with different tribes in different cities, and it proved impossible for these mostly Western-educated—in some cases, somewhat detached—opposition leaders to pull the country together, and eventually it sort of dissolved into civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: You say—in that piece we just heard, the tape that caught Hillary Clinton saying, “We came, we saw, he died.” Explain.

SCOTT SHANE: Well, you know, in some ways, I think she would see that as unfair. She was giving a series of TV interviews, and that was in a break between interviews. The reporter for the next take was just sitting down in the chair, and an aide handed her a Blackberry with the news that Gaddafi—you know, first reports that Gaddafi might be dead. And that was her sort of, I think she would say, you know, exaggerated, humorous reaction. But, you know—but it did capture, I think, the fact that she had become very involved in this effort that first—that sort of began as protecting civilians and sort of evolved into overthrowing Gaddafi. And she was eager to see an end to what had become a surprisingly drawn-out affair, given the fact that this very large alliance of NATO and Arab countries were on the rebels’ side. So I think she was relieved and pleased that Gaddafi’s rule was over and that he was no longer around to make trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: During the Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire last year, ABC News host Martha Raddatz questioned Hillary Clinton about her support for the 2011 invasion of Libya, which toppled Muammar Gaddafi.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Secretary Clinton, I want to circle back to something that your opponents here have brought up. Libya is falling apart. The country is a haven for ISIS and jihadists, with an estimated 2,000 ISIS fighters there today. You advocated for that 2011 intervention and called it “smart power at its best.” And yet, even President Obama said the U.S. should have done more to fill the leadership vacuum left behind. How much responsibility do you bear for the chaos that followed elections?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, first, let’s remember why we became part of a coalition to stop Gaddafi from committing massacres against his people. The United States was asked to support the Europeans and the Arab partners that we had. And we did a lot of due diligence about whether we should or not, and eventually, yes, I recommended, and the president decided, that we would support the action to protect civilians on the ground. And that led to the overthrow of Gaddafi.

I think that what Libya then did by having a full free election, which elected moderates, was an indication of their crying need and desire to get on the right path. Now, the whole region has been rendered unstable, in part because of the aftermath of the Arab Spring, in part because of the very effective outreach and propagandizing that ISIS and other terrorist groups do.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Senator Sanders?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The truth is, it is relatively easy for a powerful nation like America to overthrow a dictator, but it is very hard to predict the unintended consequences and the turmoil and the instability that follows after you overthrow that dictator. So, I think Secretary Clinton and I have a fundamental disagreement: I’m not quite the fan of regime change that I believe she is.

AMY GOODMAN: “I’m not quite the fan of regime change that … she is,” says Bernie Sanders in that debate with Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. Scott Shane, from Iraq and her vote for the war with Iraq, which of course did lead to regime change, to Libya, talk about the goal of Hillary Clinton and whether that was even different from the goal of President Obama, who she does wrap herself around now in all of her presidential campaigning.

SCOTT SHANE: I think what we found is that there is a subtle but distinct difference between President Obama and Secretary Clinton on the question of sort of activism and interventionism abroad. And, you know, in a situation like Libya, there are no good choices. It’s certainly conceivable that if she had tipped the other way, and the U.S. and the Europeans and others had not gotten involved, that perhaps Gaddafi would have slaughtered a whole lot of civilians, and we would be, you know, posing different questions to her today.

But, you know, what we found was that President Obama is, not surprisingly, very shaped by the Iraq experience, which he’s had to cope with the still ongoing aftermath of the decision to invade in 2003 all these years later. She, of course, has been in government longer, and I think she—you know, her aides say that she was also influenced by genocide in Rwanda, which taught her the cost of inaction in a situation like that, and by the experience in the Balkans, which sort of cut both ways. But, you know, I think she drew the lesson that intervention could prevent even larger massacres and do some good, as imperfect as the outcome was there. So they kind of look back to these different historical experiences and draw different conclusions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you report in your piece in the Times that shortly after the air campaign began in 2011, there was the possibility of a 72-hour ceasefire, potentially leading to a negotiated exit for Gaddafi. Why was that offer not taken seriously by the American military?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, you know, there were—there was a whole array of attempts to come up with some sort of soft exit for Gaddafi. Perhaps he would stay in Libya, perhaps he would go elsewhere. But I think the bottom line was that the Americans and the Europeans and the other Arab—and the Arab countries that were involved in this, all basically felt that Gaddafi, who was basically a megalomaniac, who had been in office for 40 years and sort of saw him as the savior of his country, just would not, when push came to shove, be willing to cede power. And they felt that any kind of ceasefire, he would use just to kind of regroup his forces and extend the fighting. Whether that was true or not, you know, history will judge.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of this being a failed state right now and Hillary Clinton’s responsibility here—of course, as is President Obama, but she was the secretary of state who was advising him, meeting with people on the ground, making her suggestions on pushing forward with war?

SCOTT SHANE: Yeah, I mean, you know, one reason we did that series is that it appears that intervention—when, how and whether to intervene in other countries, particularly Muslim countries—remains sort of a pressing question for American presidents. And since she’s running for the presidency, this is, you know, perhaps a revealing case study of how she comes out in these situations.

But, you know, there are—there is no good example of intervention or non-intervention in these countries since the Arab Spring and before that. I mean, you have Iraq, where we spent years occupying, a very tragic outcome. You have Libya, where we intervened but did not occupy and pretty much, you know, stayed out of it afterwards—not a good outcome. And you have Syria, where we have really not intervened, have not occupied, and you’ve had this terrible civil war with huge casualties. So, you know, some people in Washington are questioning whether there is any right answer in these extremely complicated countries in the Middle East.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, given the spread of ISIS in Libya, you report that some of Obama’s top national security aides are now pushing for a second American military intervention in Libya.

SCOTT SHANE: Yeah, I mean, one of the ironies here is that, you know, you’ve almost come full circle, but instead of targeting Gaddafi and Gaddafi’s forces, the U.S. is now targeting ISIS. And the—you know, in that debate, Martha Raddatz uses the number 2,000 ISIS fighters; now it’s up to 5,000 or 6,000. You know, on the coast of Libya, they have formed the most important outpost for the Islamic State outside Syria and Iraq, and the Europeans and the Americans are very worried about it. So, there was actually an airstrike on an ISIS camp in western Libya, where there were Tunisians responsible for some attacks in Tunisia, and now they’re looking at possible attacks on the major ISIS stronghold in Libya, which is in Sirte on the coast.

AMY GOODMAN: In your piece, you talk about the memo afterwards that highlights Hillary Rodham Clinton—HRC, as it’s put—role, talking about her leadership, ownership, stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish, with an eye to the presidential campaign. Can you talk about this, as you put it, this brag sheet?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, that memo was written in 2011, when Gaddafi had fallen. And, you know, it looked like—you know, they were holding this up as sort of an alternative to the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq, a coalition in which the U.S. was not even the leader and organizer, really, and it was a very broad coalition of nations that had intervened. They saw this as what she referred to as “smart power.” And they really thought this might be something they would hold up as a very successful part of her record as she ran for president. As we’ve seen, that did not happen, and, you know, you don’t hear them raise the subject of Libya on the campaign trail at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Shane, we have to end the show, but we’re going to do Part 2 of our conversation after the show about your new book, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone. Scott Shane, national security reporter for The New York Times. And we’ll link to this major exposé [part one, part two] you did on Hillary Clinton’s role in “The Libya Gamble.”

That does it for the show. We have this late, breaking news: Honduras—the Honduran indigenous and environmental organizer Berta Cáceres has been assassinated. She was one of the leading organizers for indigenous land rights in Honduras, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

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