President Obama: Libya aftermath 'worst mistake' of presidency

President Obama: Libya aftermath 'worst mistake' of presidency

President Obama gave the brief but revealing answer speaking to Chris Wallace:

CW: Worst mistake?

Obama: Probably failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, in intervening in Libya.

To follow up, as the BBC notes, he said something similar in the recent Atlantic feature on Obama. The whole article is worth a read, but here's the relevant bit, emphasis in bold added:

But what sealed Obama’s fatalistic view was the failure of his administration’s intervention in Libya, in 2011. That intervention was meant to prevent the country’s then-dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering the people of Benghazi, as he was threatening to do. Obama did not want to join the fight; he was counseled by Joe Biden and his first-term secretary of defense Robert Gates, among others, to steer clear. But a strong faction within the national-security team—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, who was then the ambassador to the United Nations, along with Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and Antony Blinken, who was then Biden’s national-security adviser—lobbied hard to protect Benghazi, and prevailed. (Biden, who is acerbic about Clinton’s foreign-policy judgment, has said privately, “Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.”) American bombs fell, the people of Benghazi were spared from what may or may not have been a massacre, and Qaddafi was captured and executed.

But Obama says today of the intervention, “It didn’t work.” The U.S., he believes, planned the Libya operation carefully—and yet the country is still a disaster.

Why, given what seems to be the president’s natural reticence toward getting militarily ensnarled where American national security is not directly at stake, did he accept the recommendation of his more activist advisers to intervene?

“The social order in Libya has broken down,” Obama said, explaining his thinking at the time. “You have massive protests against Qaddafi. You’ve got tribal divisions inside of Libya. Benghazi is a focal point for the opposition regime. And Qaddafi is marching his army toward Benghazi, and he has said, ‘We will kill them like rats.’

“Now, option one would be to do nothing, and there were some in my administration who said, as tragic as the Libyan situation may be, it’s not our problem. The way I looked at it was that it would be our problem if, in fact, complete chaos and civil war broke out in Libya. But this is not so at the core of U.S. interests that it makes sense for us to unilaterally strike against the Qaddafi regime. At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”

“Free riders?,” I interjected.

“Free riders,” he said, and continued. “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight. And we worked with our defense teams to ensure that we could execute a strategy without putting boots on the ground and without a long-term military commitment in Libya.

“So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion—which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”

Mess is the president’s diplomatic term; privately, he calls Libya a “shit show,” in part because it’s subsequently become anisis haven—one that he has already targeted with air strikes. It became a shit show, Obama believes, for reasons that had less to do with American incompetence than with the passivity of America’s allies and with the obdurate power of tribalism.

“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said. He noted that Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, lost his job the following year. And he said that British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things.” Of France, he said, “Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the intervention. This sort of bragging was fine, Obama said, because it allowed the U.S. to “purchase France’s involvement in a way that made it less expensive for us and less risky for us.” In other words, giving France extra credit in exchange for less risk and cost to the United States was a useful trade-off—except that “from the perspective of a lot of the folks in the foreign-policy establishment, well, that was terrible. If we’re going to do something, obviously we’ve got to be up front, and nobody else is sharing in the spotlight.”

Obama also blamed internal Libyan dynamics. “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected. And our ability to have any kind of structure there that we could interact with and start training and start providing resources broke down very quickly.”

Libya proved to him that the Middle East was best avoided. “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa,” he recently told a former colleague from the Senate. “That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.”

Source: The Obama Doctrine, by Jeffrey Goldberg

It's just fucking insane.

Yeah, removing a regime in the middle of a multi-sided war with various bands of islamist rebels is a recipe for disaster. How to avert such disaster? First, consider listening to your secretary of defense and don't go in. Second, if you must go in and decapitate the regime, have a fucking plan for the aftermath.

This is why I won't support Clinton. She pushed this shit in Libya, and is pushing for the same in Syria and has been for a few years.

It's certainly nothing new. What makes the fact that it happened all the more incredulous is that we had such a recent example of the result of failing to plan for the aftermath of victory; the Bush administration's handling of Iraq after ousting Sadam Hussein. It seems we just keep doing the same things over and over, regardless who's in charge of the country, and wondering "gee, why didn't it work this time?"

Regardless of which party someone supports, let us take a moment to realize the kinds of significant decisions a person in these positions has to undertake. Can you possibly imagine yourself in a position to calculate which outcome will be "Less worse" than the other? Just shuffling through some of the decisions and wondering myself what I would've done differently and I still don't know what I would've done!

I think you're understating what the US (and the rest of NATO, it wasn't unilateral) did in Libya. They didn't "just bomb some shit for a little bit" - they removed Gaddafi's air force from the equation. They took Libya's armed forces, which weren't too shabby, and reduced them to fighting on an even playing field with guys in pickup trucks wielding AK-47s.

Libya was going to be a war zone regardless, yes. In fact, it already was a war zone - Gaddafi had bombed one rebellious city (Zawiya) to the ground already and was threatening another, larger one (Benghazi). NATO's intervention stopped the threat to Benghazi, but also turned the war into a bloody stalemate halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi.

That is a much more candid and realistic evaluation than I expected.

Surprised Clinton's pushing hard for Libya isn't in the campaign more.

When it comes to news or politics everyone is an expert or captain hindsight until they are actually in a position to make those discussions. At which point it is no longer so easy.

The problem is, as the Atlantic points out elsewhere, you have the Clinton old guard who were there when the U.S. was condemned for not intervening in Rwanda and Serbia, so they don't want that to happen again. On the other side there's the non-interventionists. It's a situation where no matter what, someone will get fucked. And in the middle of it, there's a world leader who is marching troops to slaughter his own people. U.N. dictates intervention in that case, and we did it as a coalition, but clearly without any clear plan on guiding Libya out the other side (as you mentioned, like the Iraq situation).

Basically a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. America intervenes and the country is worse off "why did you interfere with another country and fuck shit up even worse?" America doesn't intervene and the country turns into a bloody civil war "Why didn't America step in to prevent this atrocity?"

He got it for not being Bush. That's it. His initial election was the greatest, worldwide circle jerk I've ever seen. Not saying he's a bad guy at all, but that initial hype train was cringe worthy.

Another reason not to vote for Clinton. She was part of the reason why the mission failed in Libya what makes people think she'll get it right the next time? All she seems to do is apologize for the decisions that she makes.

Except Trump supported intervention in Libya, too.

The US didn't do anything really in Libya, they just bombed some shit for a little bit. The war was happening regardless and the US played little part in what ended up being the removal of Gaddafi

Also Gaddafi was gearing up for protracted war, so Libya was gonna be a war zone regardless

It was actually the French who primarily "pushed this shit in Libya...", Clinton was just the one who had the US go along with it. But, as Obama noted, he (and likely Clinton) had expected Europe, particularly France and England, to take the lead on the aftermath.

But, as has been the case in the past, Europe just backed out of the situation and pretended they had no part.

Reading the comments here I don't think people read what Obama said or correctly remember the Libya intervention. It certainly wasn't the US going gung ho into a country and single handedly removing a dictator like what was done in Iraq.

Surprised Clinton's pushing hard for Libya isn't in the campaign more.

She hasn't faced any big guns yet. It will come. Even Cruz can throw shots 100% better than Bernie, and if it's Trump... both barrels.

Obama and Hillary own Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia and that whole Arab Spring failure.

During the Arab Spring last year, President Obama pledged full U.S. support to those who risked their lives to reform dictatorial regimes across the Middle East. Now, the administration has closed the U.S. Embassy in Syria as government forces slaughter civilians and is grappling with the Egyptian military’s plan to hold trials for Americans accused of meddling in its internal affairs.

HRC: The United States must look past the violence and extremism that has erupted after the "Arab Spring" revolutions and boost support for the region's young democracies to forge long-term security, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday.

to anyone who has not read it yet, definitely read the Atlantic piece on Obama's foreign policy over the course of his presidency. Long, but excellent read.

It's the unfortunate cost of becoming the worlds only superpower. [insert tired spider-man quote here]

"they'll sell out the future of their own children to protect refugees and immigrants who rape their children"

Very open minded. We need more people to believe this. If we're lucky, we could kill them all and the problem would be solved /s

Well, in this case he made the same mistake that prior presidents have made: thinking we can help the Middle East. The people there just have a sense of tribalism and no unity as a people. Until they can get their own shit together and decide that they want to act like grown ups, then there is nothing we can do for them. We go in, take out whatever crazy group is in power, then we leave a vacuum for another crazy group to come in. It's happened over and over and over again.

It wasn't just the "aftermath" of Libya...that whole foreign policy approach was terrible from the get-go. We can put this nugget in the "No Shit, Sherlock" file.

Yep. The US and allies evened the playing field significantly.

Did the US intervene in those countries? I don't believe it did.

One day conservatives will argue against actual positions instead of the strawmen they invent in their head. Watch your back or the libs will get you. Ooga booga.

So your answer is to prop up despots?

Was the country more or less stable prior to Ghadafi being assassinated? What was the population of ISIS/ISIL/Al Queda in Libya prior to the assassination?

"Turn over MJ I'm haven't finished yet"?

All of the above. We decimated the regime forces and left a power void. Which is exactly why this article exists.

It wouldn't be so egregious if he and his political party hadn't spent the last decade bashing Bush for not having a better plan for Iraq post-Hussein.

Yes, it rings bells, but the two articles you posted talk about the failure of the Obama admin to do anything in Egypt and Tunisia. So he did not intervene in those two countries. He is literally damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. The Americans mentioned in the first article were acting on their own.

I think pretty much every president has admitted fault or mistakes. Only a complete asshole could finish being president for 8 years and actually think, "Naw, there's nothing I could have done better."

Bush regrets Iraq

Clinton regrets Rwanda

Don't the people in those countries "own" them more? There's a tendency in American foreign policy to think that if the US sneezes, it causes a hurricane on the other side of the world, without acknowledging that the millions of people who live elsewhere all have their own agendas.

Also, Tunisia is doing pretty good. Primarily due to the determination of the Tunisian people. Tunisia owns their success (or failure) for their own revolution.

Oh, I totally agree. The administration couldn't resist the illusory potential upside of spreading democracy.

They were blinded by optimism and somehow waved away the very obvious downsides. Like, look at the fucking demographics and opinion polls. The region is full of geopolitical tension, most countries are at least somewhat authoritarian partly because they need to keep a lid on overwhelming ethnic and religious tensions.

Who would ever guess that the road from protest to uprising to rebellion to civil war to proxy war would have a hard time maintaining liberal democratic values without being co-opted by islamists and other reactionary, totalitarian movements? Who would have guessed that it would generally go to shit, save tiny Tunisia? Egypt was probably somewhat lucky it's military actually ran shit and pulled a coup on the Muslim Brotherhood before it devolved into civil war. Id wager plenty of them wish Mubarak were still running it.

Are you asking me? I don't have the answers to those questions. I asked this in response to another user but Tunisia really isn't the best example of a failure, is it? The country has stabilized under a new democratically elected government. Sure they need to get their infrastructure back to the way it was before, but for the most part everyone points to Tunisia as a success.

That noble peace prize though.   NSFW.


There's a reason why the people rose up against dictators like Gaddafi and Assad. Propping them up amounts to nothing more than kicking the can down the road. It'll just blow up again.

Also, Libya was in the midst of a civil war at the time the US and our allies intervened, so we aren't the ones that destabilized the country.

What about Egypt and Tunisia.

Do those go in his "success" column?

I'm sure Clinton will support Obama on this statement - right?

"We came, we saw, he died!" - Hillary Clinton

Oh I'm sure we can find plenty of bigger fuckups.

Apparently they thought nation building was the problem and not wanton regime removal.

Profoundly stupid in my estimation, but I don't know how else to call it.

Did you want the administration to interfere in another country's free elections? Should he have installed the US' preferred ruler instead? Or should we have intervened, perhaps militarily, to stop the protests that toppled Mubarak?

I would certainly hope we can find some middle ground between killing them all and allow ourselves to be eaten from the inside out.

That's exactly what I mean. You ask State about foreign relations impact, Rice about UN support, ask the DCI about the intelligence communities assessment on what a post Quadafi Libya would look like, and SecDef about if it can be done and at what cost.

State and Rice pushed for it for political reasons. Secdef and DCI argued against it because it was a really stupid idea and they didn't see it having either short or long term success.

I think Obama saying his biggest failure is a direct result of listening to the wrong people proves me right here.

Honestly, I'm even less of a fan of Niall Ferguson. I'm not inherently against the whole neoconservative ideology, but he's very pro-Empire/ends justify the means.

Edit: Actually, never mind, I am pretty anti-neocon.

You forgot to include *vapid grin*

To be fair he seemed as confused as everyone else when that was announced.

Obama will actually have a pretty decent legacy as POTUS. He wasn't perfect, but no president is.

Our fault is believing that if we free a people that they will then use that freedom for good.

Our failure is trying to plant flowers in the desert.

Hillary Clinton for Prison 2016

They were on some kind of "Democracy! Democracy for all!" high. Even when they had tomatoes thrown at them from the citizens.

Bush went in with the military to over throw a dictator. Obama sent $ to rebels to overthrow dictators and create "young democracies" and "vocally" supported the movement. Now we got 100 rogue "rebel" groups, including ISIS.

I don't know which way was worse cause both ways we have a fucking mess. Leave the dictators alone and butt out.

What inconsistency? Iraq was invaded and made unstable. Libya was unstable to begin with because of a civil war and the murder of Khadafi. The situations aren't remotely similar.

I'm not the biggest fan of Goldberg and it's clearly a pro-Obama piece, but there's a lot of good stuff there regardless.

No. Nowhere did I say that.

Who was his Secretary of State at the time? We should definitely reward that person by electing them President, whoever it was.

And evil cackle

Even when we weren't, the USSR wasn't running around helping people. Red China wasn't taking humanitarian strides.

Their policies were why Afghanistan became the shit hole it did, why North Korea is such a nightmare.

The problem is that Europe, is the only other landmass where you can point to both military and political might and pro-democratic secular values, besides North America (and look at Canada within NATO. it's really just America), and they basically just don't do anything.

They have lots of paperworks about peace on earth, and they'll sell out the future of their own children to protect refugees and immigrants who rape their children and they'll pay tribute to the Saudi power and Russian power that abuse their own people or their fellow Europeans for the sake of energy.

But they won't spend the money and the blood that it takes to fight for peace - they leave that to the dumb Americans.

Sure, except help push it through the UN and support and assist with lots of bombing the regime, implementing a no fly zone, and arming and funding rebels. And that's setting aside the many plausible clandestine actions alleged.

We may not have totally led the charge, but Qaddafi has been a target of the US for a long time, and some, like Clinton, didn't want to waste it, concerned more with intervening than actually helping the situation. Oh, we stopped Qaddafi from a potential atrocity, but we didn't stop the shitload of atrocities that toppling him led to.

And this shit outcome isn't contained in Libya. It's the original source of the migrant crisis in Europe, and tons of fighters went to Syria, and many go back and forth to secure footholds for IS.

Not much, but Bush still won't admit that any part of the Iraq invasion was a mistake, and is still committed to WMD revisionism. His presidential library is a monument to a falsified history. At least Obama has the honesty to own up to what may turn out to be one of the worst foreign policy fuckups since Iraq.

True, which is the whole point of this article - the fact that it never stabilized is something Obama considers to have been a major mistake.

But there's an impression among some people that Libya was just a stable country minding its own business until the US decided to drop in, topple Gaddafi, and destabilize everything. That's false. The country was in the middle of a bloody revolution and was in no way stable. NATO didn't start the war, they just picked a side.

He has never admitted fault or mistakes before...

are you sure about that? I feel like Obama has actually been better about self-criticism than a lot of other politicians

2 on the Shit Show List:

Egypt throwing tomatoes at Hillary for backing Morsi-Muslim-Brotherhood who is now in jail.  

There's a shit show for ya.

2 on the Shit Show List:

Egypt throwing tomatoes at Hillary for backing Morsi-Muslim-Brotherhood who is now in jail.

There's a shit show for ya.