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TheBigLieAbouttheLibyanWar
The Obama administration said it was just trying to protect civilians. Its actions reveal it was
looking for regime change.
BY MICAH ZENKO MARCH 22, 2016
InthisfthanniversaryweekoftheU.S.-ledLibyaintervention,itsinstructivetorevisitHillaryClintons
curiouslyabridgeddescriptionofthatwarinher2014memoir,HardChoices.Clintontakesthereaderfromthe
crackdown,byMuammaral-Qaddasregime,ofanascentuprisinginBenghaziandMisrata;tohermeeting
accompaniedbythepop-intellectualBernard-HenriLvywithMahmoudJibril,theexiledleaderofthe
oppositionNationalTransitionalCouncil;tohermarshalingofaninternationalmilitaryresponse.InlateMarch
2011,ClintonquotesherselftellingNATOmembers,ItscrucialwereallonthesamepageonNATOs
responsibilitytoenforcetheno-yzoneandprotectciviliansinLibya.

Justtwoparagraphslaternow15pagesintohermemoirsLibyasectionClintonwrites:[By]latesummer
2011,therebelshadpushedbacktheregimesforces.TheycapturedTripolitowardtheendofAugust,and
Qaddaandhisfamilyedintothedesert.Thereisanabruptandunexplainedseven-monthgap,duringwhich
themilitarymissionhasinexplicably,andmassively,expandedbeyondprotectingcivilianstoregimechange
seeminglybyhappenstance.Theonlyoppositioncombatantsevenreferredtoaresimplylabeledtherebels,and
theentireroleoftheNATOcoalitionanditsattendantresponsibilityinassistingtheiradvancehasbeen
completelyscrubbedfromthenarrative.

Incontemporarypoliticaldebates,theLibyainterventiontendstoberememberedasanintra-administration
soapopera,focusedontheroleClintonorSusanRiceorSamanthaPowerplayedinadvisingObamatogo
throughwithit.Oritsaddressedo

andedlyinreferencetothe2012terroristattacksontheU.S.specialmission

andCIAannexinBenghazi.ButitwouldbefarmorepertinenttotreatLibyaasacasestudyforthewaysthat
supposedlylimitedinterventionstendtomushroomintocampaignsforregimechange.Fiveyearson,itsstillnot
amatterofpublicrecordwhenexactlyWesternpowersdecidedtotoppleQadda.
TomorefullycomprehendwhatactuallyhappenedinLibyaveyearsago,letsbrieyreviewwhattheObama
administrationproclaimedandcomparethatwithwhatactuallyhappened.
OnMarch28,2011,U.S.PresidentBarackObamaaddressedthenation:ThetaskthatIassignedourforces[is]to
protecttheLibyanpeoplefromimmediatedangerandtoestablishano-yzone.Broadeningourmilitary
missiontoincluderegimechangewouldbeamistake.Twodayslater,AssistantSecretaryofStatePhilipGordon
declared,ThemilitarymissionoftheUnitedStatesisdesignedtoimplementtheSecurityCouncilresolution,no
moreandnoless.ImeanprotectingciviliansagainstattacksfromQaddasforcesanddeliveringhumanitarian
aid.Thefollowingday,Clintonsdeputy,JamesSteinberg,saidduringaSenatehearing,PresidentObamahas
beenequallyrmthatourmilitaryoperationhasanarrowlydenedmissionthatdoesnotincluderegime
change.
FromtheDefenseDepartment,ChairmanoftheJointChiefsofStaAdm.MichaelMulleninformedDavid
GregoryofMeetthePress,Thegoalsofthiscampaignrightnowagainarelimited,anditisntaboutseeinghim
go.Meanwhile,SecretaryofDefenseRobertGatesechoedtheadministrationline:Regimechangeisavery
complicatedbusiness.Itsometimestakesalongtime.Sometimesitcanhappenveryfast,butitwasneverpartof

themilitarymission.(Emphasisadded.)
Now,contrastGatessassertionin2011withwhathetoldtheNewYorkTimeslastmonth:
Icantrecallanyspecicdecisionthatsaid,Well,letsjusttakehimout,Mr.Gatessaid.Publicly,hesaid,the
ctionwasmaintainedthatthegoalwaslimitedtodisablingColonelQaddascommandandcontrol.Infact,
theformerdefensesecretarysaid,Idontthinktherewasadaythatpassedthatpeopledidnthopehewouldbe
inoneofthosecommandandcontrolcenters.

Thisisscarcelybelievable.GiventhatdecapitationstrikesagainstQaddawereemployedearlyandoften,there
almostcertainlywasadecisionbythecivilianheadsofgovernmentoftheNATOcoalitiontotakehimoutfrom
theverybeginningoftheintervention.OnMarch20,2011,justhoursintotheintervention,Tomahawkcruise
missileslaunchedfromaBritishsubmarinestationedintheMediterraneanSeastruckanadministrativebuilding
inQaddasBabal-Aziziacompound,lessthan50yardsawayfromthedictatorsresidence.(Thisattackoccurred
just100yardsfromthebuildingthatRonaldReaganauthorizedtobebombedbyF-111saquarter-centuryearlier
inretaliationforaBerlindiscothquebombingorderedbytheLibyanleader.)Justasthedictatorsomehow
survivedtheattackonhispersonalresidencein1986,healsodidin2011.
Laterthatday,ViceAdm.WilliamGortney,directoroftheJointSta,wasaskedbythepress,Canyouguarantee
thatcoalitionforcesarenotgoingtotargetQadda?Gortneyreplied,Atthisparticularpoint,Icanguarantee
thathesnotonatargetinglist.WhenitwasthenpointedoutthatitwasQaddaspersonalresidencethathad
beenattacked,Gortneyadded,Yeah.But,no,werenottargetinghisresidence.Weretheretosettheconditions
andenforcetheUnitedNationsSecurityCouncilresolution.Thatswhatweredoingrightnowandlimitingitto
that.
Infact,notonlywastheWesterncoalitionnotlimitingitsmissionstotheremitoftheU.N.SecurityCouncil
resolutions,butitalsoactivelychosenottoenforcethem.Resolution1970wassupposedtoprohibitarms
transferstoeithersideofthewarinLibya,andNATOocialsclaimedrepeatedlythatthiswasnotoccurring.On
April19,2011,abrigadiergeneralstated,Noviolationofthearmsembargohasbeenreported.Threeweekslater,
onMay13,awingcommanderadmitted,Ihavenoinformationaboutarmsbeingmovedacrossanyofthe
bordersaroundLibya.Infact,EgyptandQatarwereshippingadvancedweaponstorebelgroupsthewholetime,
withtheblessingoftheObamaadministration,whileWesternintelligenceandmilitaryforcesprovided
battleeldintelligence,logistics,andtrainingsupport.

Yet,themostdamningpieceofevidencecomesfromapublicrelationsvideothatNATOitselfreleasedonMay24,
2011.Intheshortvideo,aCanadianfrigatetheHMCSCharlottetownallegedlyenforcingthearmsembargo,
boardsarebeltugboatandndssmallarms,105mmhowitzerrounds,andlotsofexplosives,allofwhichare
bannedunderSection9ofResolution1970.Thenarratorstates,ItturnsoutthetugboatisbeingusedbyLibyan
rebelstotransportarmsfromBenghazitoMisrata.TheCharlottetowncaptainradiosNATOheadquartersfor
furtherguidance.Asthenarratorconcludes,NATOdecidesnottoimpedetherebelsandtoletthetugboat
proceed.Inotherwords,aNATOsurfacevesselstationedintheMediterraneantoenforceanarmsembargodid
exactlytheopposite,andNATOwascomfortablepostingavideodemonstratingitshypocrisy.
Intruth,theLibyaninterventionwasaboutregimechangefromtheverystart.ThethreatposedbytheLibyan
regimesmilitaryandparamilitaryforcestocivilian-populatedareaswasdiminishedbyNATOairstrikesand
rebelgroundmovementswithintherst10days.Afterward,NATObeganprovidingdirectclose-airsupportfor
advancingrebelforcesbyattackinggovernmenttroopsthatwereactuallyinretreatandhadabandonedtheir
vehicles.Fittingly,onOct.20,2011,itwasaU.S.PredatordroneandFrenchghteraircraftthatattackedaconvoy
ofregimeloyaliststryingtoeeQaddashometownofSirte.Thedictatorwasinjuredintheattack,captured
alive,andthenextrajudiciallymurderedbyrebelforces.
TheinterventioninLibyashowsthattheslipperyslopeofallegedlylimitedinterventionsismoststeepwhen
theresasignicantgapbetweenwhatpolicymakerssaytheirobjectivesareandtheorderstheyissueforthe
battleeld.Unfortunately,duplicityofthissortisacommonpracticeintheU.S.military.Civilianandmilitary
ocialsareofteninstructedtousespecictalkingpointstosuggestthescopeofparticularoperationsisminimal
relativetolarge-scalegroundwarsorthatthereisnowargoingonatall.Notethatittook14monthsbeforethe
Pentagonevenadmitted,Ofcourseitscombat,forU.S.soldiersinvolvedintheongoingmissionagainstthe
IslamicStateinIraq.Meanwhile,thepubliclearnedjustthisweekonlybecauseStaSgt.LouisF.Cardinwas
killedonSaturdaythatthereisapreviouslyunannounceddetachmentofMarinesinnorthernIraqproviding
forceprotectionfortheIraqimilitaryandU.S.advisors.Thegradualaccretionoftroops,capabilities,arms
transfers,andexpandedmilitarymissionsseeminglyjusthappens,becauseocialsframeeachpolicystepas
normalandnecessary.Therealityisthat,collectively,theyrepresentafundamentallylargeranddierent
intervention.

DuringthetheatricalandexhaustiveBenghazihearinginOctober2015,Rep.PeterRoskam(R-Ill.)askedClinton
aboutavideoclipthatread,Wecame,wesaw,hedied[meaningQadda].IsthattheClintondoctrine?Clinton
replied,No,thatwasanexpressionofreliefthatthemilitarymissionundertakenbyNATOandourother
partnershadachieveditsend.Yet,thiswasneverthemilitarymissionthattheObamaadministrationrepeatedly
toldtheworldithadsetouttoachieve.ItmisledtheAmericanpublic,becausewhilepresidentsattempttoframe
theirwarsasnarrow,limited,andessential,admittingtothehonestobjectiveinLibyaregimechangewould
havebroughtaboutmorescrutinyanddiminishedpublicsupport.Theconclusionisclear:Whileweshouldlisten
towhatU.S.andWesternocialsclaimaretheirmilitaryobjectives,allthatmattersiswhattheyauthorizetheir
militariestoactuallydo.
Photocredit:ABDULLAHDOMA/AFP/GettyImages

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