When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walked into the gilded Elysee Palace in Paris on March 14, 2011, she found a fired-up French President Nicolas Sarkozy eager to launch military strikes in Libya.
It had been nearly a month since Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s security forces had gunned down more than a dozen protesters in Tripoli, touched off a civil war and threatened to slaughter thousands more rebels like “rats.”
Clinton had been traveling the globe meeting with allies, hoping to find a diplomatic solution to avoid U.S. military action. She knew European and even Arab allies wanted to strike Gaddafi, and she had come to Paris to hear them out.
Now, with a huge column of Gaddafi’s tanks and soldiers closing in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Sarkozy gave Clinton “an earful.”
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“He told Hillary, ‘Something must be done,’” said a senior European diplomat directly involved in the talks. The diplomat said Clinton came out shaking her head about Sarkozy’s hyper-energetic style.
“But he’s right,” she said.
A few hours later, after consultations with British and Arab allies and a leader of the Libyan opposition all demanding action, Clinton joined a White House meeting of President Obama’s National Security Council by phone and urged the president to take military action.
Clinton’s decision was one of the most significant — and risky — of her career.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon and others were against military action, contending that the United States had no clear national interests at stake and that operations could last far longer and cost more lives than expected.
But Clinton joined U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice and White House adviser Samantha Power in pressing Obama to back a military campaign led by the United States and NATO, arguing that Gaddafi could not be allowed to butcher his citizens.
Obama sided with Clinton, and three days later, on March 17, the U.N. Security Council passed a U.S.-backed resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. U.S. warplanes destroyed Libya’s air defenses before turning the operation over to NATO, which continued strikes until Gaddafi was captured and killed in October.
Clinton has pointed to the operation as a signature moment in her four years as the top U.S. diplomat: “No one else could have played the role we did,” she wrote in her book “Hard Choices,” adding that acting with European and Arab allies helped “prevent what might have been the loss of tens of thousands of lives.”
But Libya today has deteriorated into a virtual failed state run by hundreds of private militias. Eighteen months after the initial airstrikes, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed by militants on a U.S. diplomatic post and a nearby CIA site in Benghazi. The North African nation has become a primary outpost for the Islamic State.
While the administration’s use of force was widely praised at the time, Libya has become a liability for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and one of the lines of attack on her by GOP candidates — and some Democrats.
Some have accused her of timidity for not pushing for a stronger and more sustained military and diplomatic campaign. Others have faulted her for getting involved at all, accusing her of “adventurism” for going beyond the civilian-protection mandate of the U.N. resolution and toppling Gaddafi without a better plan for what came next.
Clinton has repeatedly defended the Libya intervention as U.S. “smart power at its best.”
“We had a murderous dictator . . . threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people,” she said in October during a Democratic presidential debate. “We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words. And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, ‘We want you to help us deal with Gaddafi.’ “
But her attackers see poor judgment and a failure to learn from mistakes in Iraq — a war Clinton voted for as a senator, then acknowledged was a mistake during her 2008 Democratic primary campaign against Barack Obama.
As in Iraq, Clinton backed a military operation that toppled a dictator yet was marred by poor postwar planning that led to violent chaos and the rise of greater threats.
Much of the criticism has been over the killing of Gaddafi when the U.N. mandate was only to protect civilian life.
While few mourned the loss of Gaddafi, his death, at the hands of opposition forces, has had long-term effects on U.S. relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was his country’s prime minister during the debate over Libya, is highly critical of the operation. Analysts have said Putin’s anger over Libya has been a stumbling block in diplomatic discussions about whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should stay or go.
“How did we move from protecting civilians to the decapitation of the entire military and the state? I don’t know the answer,” said the European diplomat.
Whether different choices could have prevented chaos in Libya remains fiercely debated. But Clinton’s deliberations in the early weeks of the crisis offer a glimpse of how she would make decisions as commander in chief.
By the time Gaddafi’s security forces started killing protesters on about Feb. 17, 2011, Clinton and her staff were working around the clock to respond to Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. Jake Sullivan, one of Clinton’s top advisers, said she knew the Libyan violence “could spin out of control quickly.”
Clinton confidants said the secretary shifted into a mode they had seen many times. Faced with a big choice, they said, Clinton — who declined to be interviewed for this article — gathers information and ideas from a wide range of people.
“She’s different from Obama,” said a former high-ranking member of Obama’s administration who was directly involved in the Libya deliberations. “He’s a more solitary decision-maker and works with a very small group. She consults widely and intensively.”
Like many of the people involved in Clinton’s deliberations on Libya, the former official insisted on anonymity to discuss a white-hot political issue. The official described Clinton’s approach as “grind-it-out information-gathering.”
“She’s more disciplined than her husband,” the official said. “Hillary Clinton came into the Situation Room for every meeting thoroughly prepared. There wasn’t anything she hadn’t read.”
When Clinton heard the Libya news, she gathered her top aides, along with other officials with expertise in Libya, at the State Department.
Over the next four weeks, Clinton received emails with advice from friends including her former aide Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Clinton administration adviser Sidney Blumenthal and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
Clinton forwarded them to Sullivan or other aides, with notations such as “pls print” or “pls read,” according to emails released by the State Department. But it is unclear whether Clinton sought that advice or how it affected her thinking.
“Obviously she’s got people she’s close to she relies on a great deal, but it’s not a palace-guard-like process,” said Derek Chollet, who was part of the Libya deliberations as a member of the White House’s National Security Council staff after working as a top Clinton aide. “She’s comfortable with ‘flat’ organizations. She likes to hear from the junior people.”
Aides said Clinton rarely mentions her husband, former president Bill Clinton, when debating with her staff. But they said it is clear that he serves as an important adviser.
Hillary Clinton was initially cautious in public remarks about Libya because, aides said, she did not want to provoke Gaddafi as she worked to arrange the safe departure of more than 300 U.S. Embassy staffers and other Americans.
Clinton’s public comments were also constrained by the president’s posture. Obama’s first statement on Libya on Feb. 18 called for Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to “show restraint” and “respect the rights of their people.”
Three days later, Clinton called for an end to “this unacceptable bloodshed” and urged Libya to “respect the universal rights of the people.” To critics, and even some allies, her response seemed tepid.
“The horrific situation in Libya demands more than just public condemnation; it requires strong international action,” Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Connecticut, said in a statement.
The senators, Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and others were calling for a no-fly zone over Libya to ground Gaddafi’s planes and helicopters, which had been attacking rebels and protesters.
Clinton thought a no-fly zone was premature, said Sullivan, who described her “first instinct” as seeking a way “to de-escalate the situation and avoid large-scale violence.” Clinton also was skeptical that a no-fly zone would deter Gaddafi, since it would not stop his tanks and troops.
Sullivan said Clinton posed key questions to advisers: Who would enforce the no-fly zone? Would Arab nations participate? Would it protect civilians? Would the U.N. Security Council back the move?
The stakes were high. Introducing U.S. military force could have led to a long, bloody operation, at a time when Americans were weary of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Libyan opposition was untested, and there were fears about giving it U.S. support and weapons.
But inaction could have led to a massacre. It also could have solidified Gaddafi’s grip on power.
The decision belonged to Obama, but Clinton was the one measuring the moods of allies, especially in Arab nations leery of U.S. interventions. The former White House official interviewed said Obama placed high value on Clinton’s opinion.
When the last Americans left Libya on Feb. 25, the tone changed. The United States imposed unilateral financial sanctions on Libya and backed a U.N. Security Council freeze on Gaddafi assets. For the first time, Clinton called for Gaddafi to step down.
Inside Libya, the rebel forces were gaining ground. McCain and Lieberman, traveling in the Middle East, raised questions about the administration’s resolve. “I know there are doubts about America’s commitment to the region, our willpower, our strength,” Lieberman said.
A powerful group of Obama national security officials, starting with Vice President Biden and Gates, were lined up solidly against U.S. military involvement. The primary advocates for military action were Rice and Power.
The secretary of state had to pick a side.
Clinton’s view of the use of military force has been colored by her 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq war, several aides said. “Forever in her life she will be explaining why she voted for the initial Iraq invasion,” said a former State Department official who worked closely with her.
“So although she’s not afraid of the military, she’s a realist, she’s a pragmatist. She supports the U.S. military, but she is also aware of the risks of military intervention.” And, the official noted, Obama’s military advisers on Libya kept saying: “Not so fast. It’s always harder than you think. It’s our guys who are going to get killed.”
Clinton flew to Geneva on Feb. 27 to attend a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council and meet with allies. The situation in Libya was getting more violent, but Clinton remained noncommittal.
On March 10, she told Congress: “I’m one of those who believes that absent international authorization, the United States acting alone would be stepping into a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable. And I know that’s the way our military feels.”
Despite those cautious words, Clinton has an innate “bias toward action,” said the former White House official, adding that her strong preference is for the United States to lead, preferably in a coalition: “She deeply believes that the alternative to American leadership is not somebody else leading — it’s chaos.”
Two days later in Cairo, Arab leaders made a decision that Clinton said “began to change the calculus” of her thinking. The Arab League, which represents 21 countries, asked the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone and recognize the Libyan opposition.
The message was clear: If the United States and NATO would lead, Arab leaders would join military action against Gaddafi.
The next night, Clinton boarded a plane for Paris.
On March 14, she spent the day in discussions with top officials from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, Canada and Russia, and with representatives from several Arab nations.
Late that evening she met with Mahmoud Jibril, a low-key, U.S.-educated leader of the Libya opposition. “It was more of an investigation than a dialogue,” Jibril recalled. “She asked every type of question that you can think of.”
Jibril, who had flown from Qatar, where he was living in exile, said Clinton’s main interest in the 45-minute meeting was: “Who are you guys? What kind of objectives do you have? Suppose the regime fell down tomorrow. Are you capable of running the country?” She grilled him about whether al-Qaeda or other radicals were members of his council.
In her book, Clinton said she found Jibril “impressive and polished.” After four decades of Gaddafi’s repression, she wrote, “we were unlikely to find a perfect George Washington. ... Jibril and those he represented might well be the best we could hope for.”
Meanwhile, reports said Gaddafi’s forces were within a day or two of Benghazi; a massacre seemed imminent.
“She basically concluded that for all of the risks of acting, the risks of not acting were greater,” Sullivan said. “That swift succession of events, in a matter of hours, really, led her to say, ‘OK, when I get on the phone with the president, I’m going to recommend that we do this.’ “
To critics, Clinton’s late conversion seemed opportunistic. Power and Rice had spent weeks urging Obama to open a military front in Libya. Clinton let them blaze the trail, they said.
Her allies call that careful, deliberate, thoughtful decision-making.
After meeting Jibril, her mind was made up. Clinton called the White House late Monday night. The Security Council passed its resolution Thursday. And on Saturday, the bombing began.