Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders offered competing narratives on the 2011 U.S.-backed intervention in Libya at last night’s Democratic presidential debate in Brooklyn, hosted by CNN. Last week, President Obama mentioned the aftermath of the intervention as the “worst mistake” of his presidency, making engagement of it last night inevitable given that Clinton served as his secretary of state at the time.
Obama’s comments were new—he had not previously acknowledged the sub-optimal aftermath of the intervention. Wolf Blitzer, the moderator of the Brooklyn debate, asked Clinton whether as secretary of state she was “responsible” for “not preparing for Libya” after the removal of Col. Qaddafi.
“I think we did a great deal to help the Libyan people after Qaddafi’s demise,” Clinton insisted, pointing to the two elections held in Libya as evidence of American success, and boasting that the U.S. got rid (or, more accurately, helped Libya get rid) of Qaddafi’s chemical weapons stockpile. The chemical weapons claim is misleading—Qaddafi began the process of disarmament in 2003, when he unilaterally admitted that Libya had a nuclear and chemical weapons program. It was possible to conclude that process without allowing European powers to convince America into a war in which it had no national security interests.
Moreover, the U.S. and its allies didn’t do much in post-war Libya to prevent the spread of more conventional weapons in Libya’s stockpile to countries throughout the region. A United Nations panel of experts found in 2014 that arms from Libya had found their way to places as far as Nigeria and Syria, fueling conflicts there. The post-war spread of arms and weapons also fueled conflicts in places where there was no conflict before, like Mali, which USAID had called “one of the most enlightened democracies in Africa” as recently as 2012.