As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton’s support tipped the scales that led to the Obama administration’s Libyan intervention, resulting in the death of Muammar Gaddafi in his hometown in the Battle of Sirte in 2011. Almost five years later, the race for the American presidency is full throated, foreign policy is among the top issues, Clinton is a leading candidate, and Libya remains in ashes.
The Islamic State has now risen from those ashes to make Gaddafi’s urban coffin, Sirte, its de facto stronghold. The country further stands divided between three competing governments. In the east, the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) governs with the aid of the Libyan army. In the west, the Islamist General National Congress (GNC) reigns. In an effort to bridge the gap between the two factions, the United Nations has backed the Government of National Accord (GNA), which currently operates out of a naval base in Tripoli.
Obama was hesitant to get the U.S. involved in Libya’s 2011 uprising. Bracketing his apprehension was the concurrent U.S. draw-down in Iraq, an Obama mandate. Early on, it was clear the U.K. and France were pushing to get involved in Libya, along with several junior aides in the Obama administration who argued the president needed to be “on the right side of history.” Senior leaders like Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and others vehemently disagreed. Clinton, possibly in an attempt to secure her legacy, eventually pushed for the intervention, arguing that the U.S. “will be left behind” if not involved. By mid-March 2011, the U.S. and its NATO partners were striking key Gaddafi targets via Operation Odyssey Dawn.
Clinton had convinced Obama, albeit marginally.
Governance of Libya since Gaddafi’s death has been tumultuous. Initially, the National Transitional Council (NTC), the primary Libyan resistance group took power with international backing. By January 2012, resentment among certain Libyan militia groups toward to NTC led to clashes. Throughout 2012, the NTC slowly lost control of significant portions of Libya. The NTC held elections in July, which led to the election and eventual creation of the Islamist General National Congress (GNC).
Disaster once again struck barely a month after the GNC formed. Members from terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia stormed a U.S. consulate in the city of Benghazi, brutally murdering Ambassador Christopher Stephens, Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, both former US Navy SEALs. What followed was a failed Obama administration cover-up claiming the attack was the result of an anti-Islamic video posted to the internet. The congressional investigation on the totality of Clinton’s involvement in the Benghazi cover-up continues today.
Libya shuffled through a series of Prime Ministers through the GNC until May 2014 when Khalifa Haftar, a general in the Libyan National Army went rogue after frustration with the GNC leadership’s unwillingness to counter various Islamic terror groups that had sprung up across Libya. Haftar would take it upon himself to launch Operation Dignity in an effort to counter Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, however, within two days, forces loyal to his cause would attack the Libyan parliament building that same month, demanding a new constitution.
In turn, the Islamist factions in Libya created their own pseudo military operation and coalition known as Operation Dawn in July 2014.
A November 2014 decision by the Libyan Supreme Court to dissolve the HoR was the final blow to an already fragile political situation in Libya. The HoR ignored the ruling, continued to operate out of the city of Tobruk and officially endorsed Haftar’s Operation Dignity. Fighting between Dawn and Dignity would increase and include attacks on Libya’s various oil fields. The second Libyan civil war was now in full swing, but the situation would soon become even more ruinous.
In the midst of the political strife in 2014, the Islamic State, already established in Syria and Iraq, set up its first outpost in the city of Derna in east Libya in October. While the international community has been focused on the tumultuous political situation, ISIS has slowly strengthened its grip on territory in Libya, and has now has created what has been described as a coastal fortress in the city of Sirte. The move has been described by Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, an international security expert at the U.S. Army War College, as a possible attempt by ISIS to secure a back-up headquarters should the group continue to lose territory in Iraq and Syria. Attempts by the Libyan army to retake territory from ISIS have thus far failed.
By the time ISIS had entrenched itself in Libya, Clinton was of course out of office and preparing for her current bid for the presidency. Though her tenure as secretary of state is over, the implications of her push to topple Gadaffi continue. In an effort to bridge the gap between the two main political factions, the U.N. and U.S. have backed the GNA. Established in January, the GNA initially operated out of neighboring Tunis, Tunisia.
The GNA, with international assistance, made its first foray into Libya in late March when it arrived by sea into the city of Tripoli. The new government immediately met with resistance when it tried to establish itself, as the unrecognized government of Tripoli refused to submit to the GNA. GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has had limited success since his arrival in Libya, and is currently operating his government from a naval base in Tripoli.
In an apparent effort to help bolster the legitimacy of the GNA, President Obama signed a new executive order Tuesday which would allow the U.S. to sanction any individual who has hampered the government transition or poses a threat to the security of Libya. The first person to be added to the list was Islamist GNC leader Khalifa al-Ghweil.
Despite the clear chaos that has arisen from Clinton’s decision to back intervention in Libya, she has remained intransigent, and continues to defend the decision.
“Remember what was going on,” said Clinton, responding to a question regarding her decision from CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a Democratic debate in December. “We had a murderous dictator, Gadhafi, who had American blood on his hands … threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people. 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 Gadhafi.”
Even after the failures of the GNA, the ongoing civil war and the rise of ISIS in Libya, Clinton, her aides and advisers have expressed no remorse for the decision, claiming the ‘smart power’ strategy was still the right call.
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