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The In-Between Policy: How Obama And Clinton Unmade The Middle East

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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Matthew Van Dyke first crossed the border into Libya on his dusty motorcycle in 2008.

It was his latest stop on a tour of the Middle East that included several countries, but Libya became his favorite. The people were kind and welcoming, despite the fact few foreigners entered Libya in those days. Van Dyke had to bribe his way into the country. As an American with blue eyes and a fair complexion, he easily stuck out.

Van Dyke did not realize at the time that he would soon be fighting a war in Libya, the effects of which would have profound impacts on the Middle East as a whole.

Libyans lived anxiously at the time of Van Dyke’s visit. He told The Daily Caller News Foundation that Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Gaddaffi’s specter constantly hung over the population. People watched what they said, careful not mention anything that would be considered seditious.

Gaddafi himself was at the center of life in Libya.

“Every year, there would be billboards for how many years went by since Gaddafi won [power],” Van Dyke told TheDCNF.

Everyone said they loved the dictator, but only out of fear. Gaddafi bought the loyalty of his people by making them dependent on his government. A large portion of Libyans worked sham government jobs that bore a title and salary but required little to no actual work.

Libya was nowhere near a liberal democracy. Gaddafi’s detractors were often taken away never to be seen again. That said, the country was stable. Van Dyke never imagined there would be a revolution there, much less one backed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration and NATO.

“Leading from behind”

The first NATO bombs fell Mach 19, 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring revolutions.

Libya’s Gaddafi was to follow the fates of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarek and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, except Gaddafi’s ouster came amid U.S.-led NATO gunfire.

Obama entered office in 2009 with the expressed intent of ending wars, not starting them. His default policy of “don’t do stupid shit” focused on preventing what Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes called the foreign policy establishment “blob” from pushing the U.S. into another conflict.

Yet in Gaddafi case, the blob was calling for blood.

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were wary. On the contrary, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and some junior administration staffers joined the bloodlust. They eventually won the support of then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, Rhodes and Biden’s national security adviser, Antony Blinken.

The push for war was hardly one-sided.

Notable Republican hawks Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham pushed for the intervention. International voices also put immense pressure on Obama to intervene in Libya, Dr. William Inboden, the National Security Council’s former senior director for strategic planning under George W. Bush, told TheDCNF.

“Cameron and Sarkozy were really pushing hard on this. This is where the phrase ‘leading from behind’ comes from. The French and the Brits were really …  in the lead here,” Inboden told TheDCNF, referring to former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “So the Obama administration was getting that heat and pressure from allies, which if you take alliances seriously, and if anything I think these days Obama does not take them seriously enough,  that’s definitely a factor that needs to be attended to.”

Gates and Biden pointed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Did the president really want to be responsible for another 10-year conflict in the Middle East?

The Clinton camp made a humanitarian appeal. Could Obama to sit back and watch the next Balkan massacre? How would it impact his legacy?

Gaddafi comes in from the cold

The U.S. intervention in Libya was strange …

… considering the once reckless, violent international provocateur who had been a thorn in the side of the West for decades had made sudden detente with the U.S. just years earlier. In 2004, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was part of a U.S. delegation sent to Libya to determine the sincerity of Gaddafi’s change of heart.

The journey was characteristically byzantine. Hoekstra recalled driving around Tripoli for hours until the delegation was brought to a tent set up in the desert outfitted with four or five La-Z-Boys. Conversely, Gaddafi was seated in a simple white plastic chair, apparently due to his bad back.

“The conversations we had with him were … perfectly rational, understandable conversations,” Hoekstra told TheDCNF. He noted that Gaddafi realized that his support of terrorism was a mistake, and that the radical jihadists were as problematic for him as they were for the U.S. The acknowledgement was strange coming from a ruthless dictator who just more than decade earlier was responsible for supporting the infamous bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland which killed 270 people.

Hoekstra said Gaddafi realized he had a choice between making a deal with the U.S. or siding with the jihadists who wanted to overthrow him, kill him, or both. The choice was clear.

“We [had] the same enemy,” Hoekstra told TheDCNF. “[That] is one of the reasons he came in from the cold.”

Hoekstra recalled visiting several other Middle Eastern dictators in 2002, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. He noted some striking similarities in the conversations with all three men. All three were consistent on the threat posed by radical jihadists to both the U.S. and themselves. The mild-mannered Assad admitted that his father, Hafez al-Assad, murdered several of his own people, but he claimed they were the same jihadists now causing problems for the U.S. Hoekstra said their message was clear: You have a choice between letting us fight the jihadists, or risk fighting them in your area of influence.

“It was very, very prophetic,” said Hoekstra. “It’s exactly what we are doing now.”

Revolution

Van Dyke never intended to return to Libya. Despite his adventures across the Middle East, he had grown “sick” of seeing the authoritarianism that suppressed the friends he made along his journey. That changed when Libyan rebels rose up against Gaddafi in 2011.

The revolution was “one of the greatest things I’d ever seen,” Van Dyke told TheDCNF. He described it as something akin to the American and French revolutions. The Libyan people engaged in self-determination and experienced freedoms they never had before.

Van Dyke ultimately decided to return to Libya in February and was greeted by Nouri Fonas, a close friend he made during his first trip. He described Nouri as a sort of Libyan surfer hippie with thick long hair and a laid-back demeanor. But that was before the revolution, the Nouri he saw before him now was a revolutionary dressed in combat fatigues. Van Dyke decided to join the revolutionaries, but was captured by Gaddafi’s forces in March, who told him he would never see America again. After around 160 days in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, he escaped on Aug. 24, 2011.

The war in Libya changed drastically during Van Dyke’s imprisonment. Gaddafi’s forces had the clear upper hand when he joined the fight in February, but rebel forces gained the momentum by the time of his release, thanks in no small part due to U.S. and NATO air support.

“The in-between course”

Obama’s acquiescence to Clinton and company regarding the Libyan intervention may have been strange, given his anti-interventionist mandate, but his implementation ironically mirrored the mistakes of Bush.

“The big screw up of course the Obama administration made the same mistake in Libya that the Bush administration had made in Iraq,” Inboden told TheDCNF. “Which is when you pursue regime change [but] you don’t plan for the follow-on post conflict stabilization and reconstruction efforts.”

U.S. involvement was limited to air strikes, with little to no presence on the ground and no clear plan for a transition. Inboden referred to this course of action as the “in-between course,” the middle ground between a high-profile, boots on the ground invasion and non-intervention.

Gaddafi undoubtedly made aggressive statements towards protesters early in the rebellion, threatening to kill them en masse, but he was hardly the only Middle Eastern dictator to do so during Arab Spring. Assad’s forces shot protesters in the streets of Syria in March 2011. Mubarak deployed waves of armed thugs to crack down on protesters in Egypt. Saudi Arabia sent 2,000 troops in armored vehicles into neighboring Bahrain to crush the Pearl Revolution. Each of these conflicts had the potential for humanitarian disaster, and in the case of Syria, that is exactly what happened. Yet it was Gaddafi who would be killed in the streets with the tacit support of Obama and Clinton.

“This in-between course almost seems inherent to Obama’s own character and personality, it seems to be part of his disposition, and it characterized a number of his policies,” explained Inboden.

The in-between course exemplified Obama’s foreign policy. He drastically increased the use of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, allowing the U.S. to take out key terrorist leaders without risking U.S. troops. The tactic proved ineffective, given the Taliban’s eventual resurgence. Obama followed a similar course with the Iran nuclear deal, which created a temporary roadblock to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, but failed to address Iran’s ballistic missiles, support for terrorism and dominant influence in Iraqi politics.

In the end, Gaddafi did not engage in a full-scale massacre of the Libyan people. The years following his public execution were tumultuous, with competing political coalitions jockeying for power. The political quagmire eventually paved the way for the botched Benghazi disaster in September 2012 and the rise of the Islamic State in May 2015. ISIS presence in Libya is being countered, but Libya’s U.S.-backed Government of National Accord is still extremely fragile.

Van Dyke told TheDCNF that he still believes the Libyan intervention was the right choice, despite its setbacks.

“I view Libya as a success story,” he said. “It’s not like a Mad Max movie.”

Van Dyke scolded the “cubicle jockeys” who criticized the overthrow …

… despite having no idea what it is like to live under an authoritarian regime. He also criticized the Obama administration’s poor implementation, noting that the jihadist presence in Libya might have been prevented if the conflict came to an end earlier, followed by a quick restoration of stability. Such stability would have require a significant commitment.

Today, Van Dyke and his non-profit security group Sons of Liberty International continue to help marginalized groups in the Middle East fight for their freedom.

“Keeping the lid on the powder keg”

No country suffered more from the in-between course than Syria. The United Nations estimated in April that around 400,000 people have been killed in the ongoing five-year long conflict.

Obama’s middle-of-the-ground Syria policies failed on all counts. The infamous “red-line” on chemical weapons did nothing to prevent Assad from dropping chlorine bombs on his citizens. Secretary of State John Kerry’s multiple attempts at negotiation resulted in diplomatic abortions, failing to stop the joint Russian-Syrian air strike campaign against civilian targets.

Van Dyke told TheDCNF Syria was a result of the “inaction of the Obama administration.”

There wouldn’t be an Islamic State if NATO intervened, he added.

The diplomatic failures in Syria should come as no surprise. Assad saw what happened to Gaddafi after making a deal with the U.S., so why would he follow in his disastrous footsteps?

For Clinton, the intervention in Libya seemed like an easy way to cement her legacy during a monumental moment in Middle Eastern history. As Scott Shane and Jo Becker of the New York Times noted in February, Libya had a small population of 6 million with no sectarian divisions, unlike Syria and Iraq. It also had plenty of oil. Libya was an easy target, or so it seemed.

“The end result is that in 2011 [and] 2012, America flipped sides,” said Hoekstra. “We decided to engage with exactly the groups that [Gaddafi] warned us about.”

He added that dictators like Gaddafi, Mubarak and Assad are hardly good men, much less legitimate democrats, but they do serve an important purpose.

“Who they are is strong-men that are keeping the lid on the powder keg.”

Obama admitted his regret over the Libyan intervention in an interview with the Atlantic’s Geoffrey Goldberg in April 2016, noting he had misplaced his faith in the European partners. He did not mention whether or not he regretted giving in to Clinton.

The DCNF’s Elena Weissman and David Simmons contributed to this piece.

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