As the Pentagon prepares a new intervention in Libya, President Barack Obama’s doubts about the wisdom of the 2011 operation there, articulated in an interview with The Atlantic, will probably fall on deaf ears.
Obama criticized especially the United Kingdom and France for the failure. The president used harsh words in the interview, but Edward Price, the spokesman for the National Security Council, was quick to reassure the Brits. “We deeply value the U.K.’s contributions on our shared national security and foreign policy objectives which reflect our special and essential relationship,” Price said.
Obama’s remarks come during a presidential campaign in which his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is criticized on both sides for her interventionist policy against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. His message could therefore weigh in favor of Sen. Bernie Sanders, her trailing opponent in the Democratic primary, who emphasizes their differing views on foreign policy and the use of military force.
In one recent debate, Clinton said military force should not be ruled out a priori to resolve situations of national security, such as an international conflict, while Sanders continued to emphasize that war is a waste of resources that could be used on domestic problems, such as education and health care, and that conflict never benefits local populations.
This theme — whether the United States should be the world’s police, restoring democratic equilibrium — is one of the recurring topics of this election. Many blame Clinton for the current situation in Libya, where an ISIS insurgency is threatening to drag a coalition back onto the battlefield. So far she has not issued a statement about Obama’s interview.
Both Democratic candidates have pledged to continue the Obama administration’s path toward social justice and broader economic prosperity. How to accomplish this — whether by building on his successes or by starting from scratch where he fell short — is the dividing line between Sanders and Clinton. How the candidates will interpret the idea of continuity regarding Libya is completely up in the air.
As she did about the invasion of Iraq, Clinton could admit she was also wrong in Libya. But in the latter case, her involvement was not a mere vote in favor: As Secretary of State and a driving force for the intervention, she was one of its architects.
For the Republicans, many of whom do see the U.S. as the world’s police and and advance national security by force, their argument is functional: The situation in Libya since 2011 can’t be said to have improved. So they blame Clinton not for her intervention but for the power vacuum she left behind.