Will Hillary Clinton Lead Us Into Another War in the Middle East?

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 02:  Hillary Clinton at labor rally at The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on March 2, 2016 in New Yor
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 02: Hillary Clinton at labor rally at The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on March 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Sands/WireImage)

In Libya, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed herself to be quick to use the American military without thinking about what comes next. As the decisive voice pushing the Obama administration to war, Clinton had no serious plan for a post-Qaddafi Libya, a point driven home forcefully once again in a New York Times cover story on Sunday.

Libya was not the first time she endorsed a U.S. military operation in the Middle East without thinking ahead: Clinton voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. She has shown repeatedly that she did not learn the lessons of Iraq, and has yet to admit to the failure of Libya.

For Secretary Clinton to lay claim to a responsible and progressive foreign policy, she must acknowledge the failure in Libya and learn its lessons.

The first lesson of Libya is that a military operation is not a political solution.

The second is to acknowledge the limits of the capacity of the United States to transform the world in our interests and image. As explained in the New York Times, "Mrs. Clinton's deep belief in America's power to do good in the world ran aground in a tribal country with no functioning government, rival factions and a staggering quantity of arms."

In Libya, the consequence of this lack of foresight was to destroy the existing government and infrastructure, and then leave nothing in its place. According to a 2014 report by the nonpartisan RAND Corporation:

The international strategy for post-conflict stabilization differed from that taken in all of NATO's prior military interventions in one important way: No peacekeeping or stabilization forces were deployed after the war -- although many countries, including the United States, sent diplomats to help with the transition from war to peace, Libyans were largely left to fend for themselves. The situation since then has been tumultuous and violent.

It is no surprise that a working government has failed to materialize in Libya. Today, according to the United Nations, forty percent of the Libyan population is in need of humanitarian assistance. Child soldiers, migrant abuse, and unlawful killings are on the rise.

The third lesson is that foreign policy decision-makers need to think before they act. This requires a clear-eyed assessment of the potential outcomes of the use of American power to overthrow foreign leaders. "You break it, you own it," Colin Powell famously quipped in reference to Iraq.

Clinton's failure to plan ahead in Libya contrasts with Vice President Joe Biden's sobering assessment for life in the country after Qaddafi. According to the Times, Antony J. Blinken, then Biden's national security adviser and now deputy secretary of state, said that the Vice President had expressed concern about what he called "not the day after, but the decade after."

Biden's caution was well-founded: in the weeks and months following Qaddafi's demise, Libya descended into violence and chaos. The situation has only worsened, as a civil war between rival militias fanned by outside interests has erupted in the vacuum created by Qaddafi's demise.

This situation has created a haven for the Islamic State and desperate local sympathizers who have nowhere else to turn. In the wake of failed US attempts to secure it, Qaddafi's vast arsenal is now in the hands of the Islamic State and unknown others, from Mali to Syria, in an increasingly borderless region. In the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, at least one large arsenal "disappeared into the maw of the Middle East and North Africa."

Those who trumpet the former Secretary of State's foreign policy experience are engaged in little more than old-fashioned campaign spin.

Clinton is long on triumphalism ("we came, we saw, he died" she is reported to have said upon viewing a video of Qaddafi's brutal death), but short on thinking pragmatically about the consequences for Americans and others.

Having publically criticized George W. Bush for failing to plan for a post-war transition in Iraq, Clinton should have known better. Perhaps she does. In a recent town hall hosted by CNN's Chris Cuomo, the Secretary dodged the question about why when it came to Libya she had failed to apply the lessons of Iraq on the need for intelligent and thoughtful post-war planning.

The American President has significant powers in foreign policy-making. Hillary Clinton's decision-making is in line with the flawed foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration, repeating the disastrous policies of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz: bomb, invade, overthrow - and then think later, if ever.

This helps explain why arch neo-conservatives like Robert Kagan have endorsed Clinton. As Kagan put it in a recent piece in The Washington Post, "for this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton."

Hillary and her advisors may want to take the fight to Syria next. But American voters would do well to heed the lessons of failure and anarchy in Iraq and Libya. They would do well to think hard before signing onto an encore presentation of U.S.-sponsored violence in the name of freedom in the Middle East.

The question Secretary Clinton needs to answer comes from a Libyan student who asked, "We know what the U.S. can do with bombs. What else can you do?"