Recently, I wrote on these pages to debunk the protracted myth Senator Sanders continues to peddle that then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton voted "for" George W. Bush's war in Iraq. It is a false charge, plain and simple--and you can read about it right here.
Unfortunately, Hillary's primary opponent has built another falsehood on top of his earlier one, and he took it for a spin at last week's Democratic debate. It goes something like this:
The 2011 effort to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in Libya constituted U.S.-led "regime change" reflecting the same mind-set that supported our Iraq adventure of the previous decade; the resulting "unintended consequences" of a failed state and a terrorist haven are outcomes for which Hillary Clinton bears special blame, as not having learned the lessons of Iraq.
This myth is utterly false--and for many reasons.
The genesis of recent U.S. efforts to support the Libyan peoples' nascent democracy was the March 2011 attempt by the late dictator Muammar Ghaddafi to commit a mass atrocity in the city of Benghazi. The United States, with much involvement by Secretary Clinton, chose to support ("led from behind") our European and Arab allies in stopping a column of warriors, personally directed by Ghaddafi, from marching on Libya's second city--with the very real prospect, just hours away, that residents of the country's second largest population center would be slaughtered. The joint Arabic and Western response was hardly a full-throated invasion of Libya, and no conventional foreign boots--including American ones--touched Libyan soil. So, first: this was decidedly not an outsider's effort at "regime change," and therefore not remotely like the U.S. intervention in Iraq.
A very unpleasant internal revolution against Qaddafi and subsequent civil war did take place in 2011, which led to the welcome overthrow (and gruesome death) of Qaddafi himself--but which also gave rise, in that war's aftermath, to the formation or strengthening of many local militias and the breakdown of governance, generally.
Despite all the instability that ensued in Libya, relatively well-run elections were held, a moderate was elected to head the country, Qaddafi's old stockpile of chemical weapons was safely removed, and a Western-supported effort to stabilize and democratize institutions have all taken place since the end of the civil war. Development experts the world over will tell you that the work of standing up a democratic nation state on the ashes of an old, tyrannical one can take generations, and European and U.S. efforts to assist like-minded Libyans to create a new Constitution, strengthen civil society groups and expand citizen participation and the building of peaceful institutions are ongoing to this very day.
Guess who put these efforts into place? None other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, the slow slog of development and democracy-building is just not exciting enough to attract the attention of some of our oh-so-theatrical and sound-bite prone presidential contenders.
There is another part of the real story of Libya that also needs to be told: it is the story of a block-everything, do-nothing House and Senate that have made it impossible to fund the democratization of Libya at the levels required (again: after a revolution instigated by the Libyan people, themselves). Some even conjecture that the Republican-led Congress ensured an absence of resources to deprive Clinton (along with the President) of any success in Libya. If true, such behavior would of course be despicable.
The eventual success of U.S. efforts to rebuild a constitutional democratic structure in Libya will be part of Hillary's long-term legacy, and part of the intended consequences of the hard development work she has undertaken in the Middle East. In the meantime, saving hundreds of thousands of lives and keeping chemical weapons out of the hands of militias and terrorists are wins all by themselves. And news of Libya's ultimate demise as a nation-state is premature, at best.
In the end, it is clear that Western support for the aspirations of Libyans seeking to overthrow a terrible despot, although a tough call, was the right decision to make at the time. Largely brokered and led by Hillary Clinton, that effort involved smartly mobilizing a real coalition capable of achieving a narrow result. It was successful, and it showed the best of who we are as a country. It also showed, and continues to show, a future President at her very best.