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Benghazi Syndrome: Obama Learns the Wrong Lesson

| April 9, 2016

obama libya

President Obama says the Libyan intervention did not work. (White House)

By Gareth Evans

There are important lessons to be learned from what went wrong with the NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011. US President Barack Obama was right about that in his recent wonderfully frank interview in The Atlantic. But if we are not to compound the world’s misery, we have to take away the right lessons from that intervention.

We can agree that Libya is now a mess, with Islamic State forces holding significant ground, the United Nations-facilitated peace process faltering, and atrocities continuing on all sides. Indeed, human security is generally in worse shape than it was under Muammar el-Qaddafi.

We can also agree, as Obama evidently does, that far less thought, energy, and resources went into planning for life after Qaddafi than tearing him down; that France, the United Kingdom, and other US allies pulled their weight less than they should have; and that all the interveners profoundly underestimated the complexity of the shifting personal, tribal, and regional enmities and alliances that made the civil war both so bloody and so inconclusive.

But does all of this mean that no military intervention should have occurred? And does it mean that the United States, in particular, should never again act to protect civilians experiencing, or at risk of, genocide and other crimes against humanity except when its own core national-security interests are much more obviously at stake?

There are plenty of commentators only too willing to draw such conclusions from Obama’s Atlantic interview. He is reported as saying that the Libyan intervention “didn’t work,” that the country “is not at the core of our interests,” that “we can’t relieve all the world’s misery,” and that “there is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa.” Wasn’t he saying, more or less, that this intervention was precisely the kind of “stupid shit” that America should seek to avoid at all costs?

Well, no, he wasn’t, actually. As is often the case, Obama’s position is more nuanced. He also said in the interview that “if it is possible to do good at a bearable cost, to save lives, we will do it”; that “there are going to be times when we can do something about innocent people being killed”; and that he was “focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake.”

True, Obama makes clear that sometimes the cost of action will be unbearable, and that there will be times when effective action is just not possible. But those constraints on the use of force are universally understood. It is accepted that the bar has to be set very high, with military action a last resort, only to be taken proportionally, and where more good than harm will be done.

The way in which Obama articulated his position is completely consistent with the norm of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) principle unanimously embraced by the UN General Assembly in 2005. The US has consistently supported the R2P norm in the Security Council (even if its leaders don’t like using this terminology domestically, believing that the American public doesn’t like international obligations of any kind).

While it is important not to misread Obama’s personal position, it is even more important not to misread what actually happened in 2011. All the things listed by Obama did indeed go wrong in Libya. But he failed to mention something else that went badly wrong, something that to this day is rarely acknowledged by Western officials or media commentary: Early on, the NATO coalition decided to pursue not just the “protection of civilians and civilian-populated areas,” as the UN Security Council mandate expressly provided, but the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime.

There was clear support from other Security Council members for the initial military action, which unquestionably spared thousands of innocent lives in Benghazi; and it is reasonable to assume that support would have continued had France, the UK, and the US (the P3) adhered to the terms of the UN mandate. The P3 just had to show a genuine willingness to explore proposals for a ceasefire and a negotiated transition (as South Africa, in particular, advocated). And if those efforts failed (as was likely), the P3 had to make a serious and well-argued case that civilian protection could be achieved only through regime change.

The P3 did neither of those things, and paid an immediate price with the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), which withdrew their support from the Libya operation. Worse, the BRICS refused to take any action at all in response to the unfolding horror in Syria, which in its early stages bore an uncanny resemblance to Qaddafi’s oppression.

Perhaps Libya would have descended into chaos even if the Security Council had remained united, owing to the external players’ failure to understand the internal political dynamics and to prepare intelligently for post-crisis peace building. And maybe, had there not been Security Council paralysis over Syria in 2011, the catastrophic plunge into civil war there would still have occurred. We can never know.

But it is impossible not to believe that we would at least have done better in saving lives if consensus had prevailed. Obama, like his colleagues in the UK and France, may still be reluctant to acknowledge that the P3 overreached in Libya and was too arrogantly dismissive of the BRICS’ concerns. But he understands the world’s responsibility to protect people from genocide and other crimes against humanity wherever they occur. And he understands, as we all must, the need for effective multilateral action if that is to happen.

GARETH-EVANSGareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia (1988-1996) and President of the International Crisis Group (2000-2009), is currently Chancellor of the Australian National University. He co-chairs the New York-based Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect and the Canberra-based Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He is the author of The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All and co-author of Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015. © Project Syndicate.

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7 Responses for “Benghazi Syndrome: Obama Learns the Wrong Lesson”

  1. r&r says:

    And who was secritary state the incompitant HILLARY. She belongs in prison along with her husband.

  2. Outsider says:

    All of this overlooks one important fact: neither Hillary, the smartest woman in the world, or Obama, the smartest black man on the planet, seemed to have learned anytjing from the very recent experience in Iraq. Whether you think we should have gone into Iraq, or we shouldn’t have (at the time I supported it because both sides assured us Iraq was a threat, but I would never advocate doing it again,) there were some glaring lessons that were overlooked. When Saddam fell, everyone thought it was over and we were going to be thanked, and we could move along; that was the plan. The newly created power vacuum quickly allowed the country to fall into chaos, with multiple factions vying for control. It became apparent that we would have to stabilize the country, and ultimately, although at a great price, we succeeded, with even Obama declaring Iraq a stable success, before he ruined it by believing he knew better than all of his advisors and yanked out all of our troops. What they should have learned is that you can depose a dictator in the Middle East, but you better be prepared to stabilize the country at great cost in lives and treasure. Nope, as Hillary arrogantly proclaimed, “We came, he’s dead, and we left,” or something to that effect. We left the place to fall into chaos, and even as it obviously did so, they never did anything, aside from trying to convince all was going so well we could leave a diplomatic post undefended. There were numerous indications that we should have done something, and tragedy was the result.

  3. Dave says:

    “”Obama makes clear that sometimes the cost of action will be unbearable, “‘ This administration is to blame for the loss of life in Benghazi. The were told more than once that the people within the compound were not safe and those request for help were not acted on,. Hillary even went on to say it was a reaction to a video that caused the massacre of people in the American diplomatic compound. U.S. ambassador, Susan Rice, explained on ABC’s This Week that the strike was, in part, a response to protests to an anti-Islam video, rather than a terrorist attack. And we know that is false. This administration including then Sec of State Clinton are to blame for this attack and the loss of life. Its rather simple, having taken the warning by members in the NSA and CIA , people could have been removed or a stronger support force could have been in place to protect those inside the compound. This administration just chose to set back and do nothing.

  4. Knightwatch says:

    Yep, Dave, I agree with you. I think President Obama and Hillary deliberately wanted to kill the ambassador and the others. Seems to me they needed some dramatic news to distract the American public in the two months before the national election. So they had a film made up that was derogatory to Islam, stirred up Muslim riots in Egypt and Libya and used that cover to disarm security in the embassy. Then they secretly gave the information to a terrorist cell in Benghazi and waited in the safety of the White House while the attack occurred. They surreptitiously ordered the CIA, the Marine Corps and contract guards to “stand down” until they were sure everyone was dead. Meantime, they concocted a lie about the attack to further distract the American public. First they attributed the attack to rioters, then one day later, to a terrorist attack. Now that’s criminal behavior.

    But, unfortunately, it all worked as planned. Obama was elected to a second term and Hillary was cleared of wrongdoing by an official State Department review, an independent study chaired by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, six House/Senate investigations (House studies run by Republicans), and now a Republican-led investigation lasting over 700 days (longer than the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 investigations combined) that have found no culpability.

    But there is hope. If you know the answer in advance, as we do, and we keep studying it, as we do, eventually we may get the answer we want just in time for this next national election. Wait a minute … that didn’t work the first time. Damn you President Hillary Clinton!

  5. Outsider says:

    Hillary was not “cleared” of anything in the investigation; the State Department’s negligence was apparent in that they did not heed calls for increased security despite numerous red flags regarding the deterioration in security, in Libya in general, and Benghazi specifically. The following is a partial list of specific events that took place in Benghazi in the months before the attack. Surely you will not claim Hillary was unaware of the situation, as I recall the Red Cross pullout on the news. The British ambassador’s body guards were seriously injured in the attack on his convoy. In spite of all these occurrences, nothing was done to improve security:

    April 6, 2012 – An IED is thrown over the consulate fence in Benghazi.
    April 11, 2012 – A gun battle 4km from the Benghazi consulate.
    April 25, 2012 – A US Embassy guard in Tripoli is detained at a militia checkpoint.
    April 26, 2012 – A fistfight escalates into a gunfight at a Benghazi Medical University and a US Foreign Service Officer in attendance is evacuated.
    April 27, 2012 – Two South African contractors are kidnapped in Benghazi, questioned and released.
    May 1, 2012 – Deputy Commander of the local guard force in Tripoli is carjacked and beaten.
    May 22, 2012 – RPG rounds are fired at the Red Cross outpost in Benghazi.
    June 2012 – A pro-Gaddafi Facebook page posts photos of Ambassador Stevens making his morning run in the city of Tripoli and made a threat toward the Ambassador.
    June 6, 2012 – An IED is left at the gate of the US consulate in Benghazi.
    June 10, 2012 – RPG is fired at the convoy carrying the British Ambassador in broad daylight as he is nearing the British consulate in Benghazi. No one is killed but the British later close the consulate.
    Late June, 2012 – Another attack on the Red Cross outpost in Benghazi, this one in daylight. The Red Cross pulls out leaving the US consulate the last western outpost in the city.
    August 6, 2012 – Attempted carjacking of a vehicle with US diplomatic plates in Tripoli.
    Weeks prior to Sept. 11, 2012 – Libyan guards at the Benghazi consulate are “warned by their family members to quit their jobs” because of rumors of a “impending attack.”

    Ther is no way she was not aware of at least the events that were on the national news. I mean, if she didn’t get the cables requesting additional security, as she claimed, she certainly saw the Red Cross story on the news, and wouldn’t you think she would muse, “Geez, I have an ambassador over there in that mess. Maybe I should check up and see how he’s doing?” So, she was not “cleared” by the investigations; they simply demonstrated either extreme negligence, or she simply didn’t care.

  6. Knightwatch says:

    O.k., Outsider. But help me out … show me the results of the studies that showed “negligence” by the secretary.

  7. Outsider says:

    Knightwatch, I personally don’t need a study to conclude the obvious: she claimed she didn’t receive the the cables requesting more security, but she apparently is the only high level administration official who doesn’t learn of major incidents and scandals on the network news. I have followed this story with great interest from day one. I would suggest you read the congressional report on the Benghazi attack. Bear in mind it was written well before Clinton’s emails were recovered, the ones supposedly concerning her daughter’s wedding plans, revealed that she told Chelsea it was an al Qaeda type attack, while she implied to the country it was related to the video. The most damning fact, in my opinion is that the State Department’s statement, which I assume she spent some time drafting, was released around 10:00 P.M. Eastern time, when the administration was supposedly doing everything it could to help the personnel in Benghazi. Interesting that she had all that time to concoct a story, while Glen Doherty and Ty Woods weren’t even killed until until 11:15 eastern time, a full seven hours and ten minutes after the Staye Department first learned of the attack.

    Emails to State showing they first learned of the attack at 4:05 P.M., and knew Ansar Al Sharia was likely responsible by 6:07 P.M.

    State Department release, four hours after Ansar Al Sharia claimed responsibility, and over an hour before two more Americans were killed while fighting:

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