Hillary Clinton has foreign policy experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s good

Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy experience supposedly makes her a superior presidential candidate to her opponent Bernie Sanders in the 2016 race for the Democratic nomination. Commentators note that Clinton has increasingly used her “foreign policy and national security [experience] as a weapon against” her competitor.

Yet the actual content of this foreign policy experience is rarely mentioned. We are simply told it exists — that by having held the position of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is prepared to lead the free world. We are seldom told, explicitly, what exactly Clinton did as Secretary of State that demonstrates her competency in international affairs.

To be clear, Republican opponents have done their best to politicize Hillary’s foreign policy failures — though their efforts have often fallen comically flat. The 2015 “investigation” into Clinton’s alleged, though vaguely-articulated, wrongdoing in the Benghazi attacks turned up exactly nothing, and Democrats and progressives were quick to point to how absurd the whole media circus surrounding the issue was — in both the 2012 and 2016 election cycles.

Yet the liberal defense of Hillary has obscured the significantly more disturbing moral questions surrounding the U.S.’s intervention in Libya in the first place. By framing Benghazi as a “partisan witch hunt aimed at hurting the 2016 White House contender,” liberals totally ignore the fact that — regardless as to whether Hillary is responsible for the deaths of four Americans — she is definitely responsible for the deaths of countless Libyan civilians.

The war in Libya is, for all intents and purposes, a good rubric for everything paradoxical and absurd about American “interventionism”: a war conducted for mysterious reasons, with seemingly little forethought for what the consequences would be, which resulted in more chaos and death than would have resulted had the U.S. simply left everything alone. Discounting the pat “murderous dictator” line that is universally deployed in these situations, actual motivations for the intervention range from suspicions that Muammar el-Qaddafi planned to nationalize Libyan oil supplies, to the notion that he planned to transition the country’s currency system to something outside the bounds of U.S. control.

Hillary Clinton, via Brett Weinstein / Flickr

Hillary Clinton, via Brett Weinstein / Flickr

But though the reasoning behind the conflict is murky, what is readily apparent is Clinton’s involvement. Newly released emails from her classified cache reveal the presidential candidate’s extensive role in the Libyan conflict, or what has been dubbed “Hillary’s war.” Reports suggest that the Pentagon, the Obama administration and other U.S. agencies had serious doubts about the necessity of the intervention, while Hillary had “developed tunnel vision” and wanted America to help forcibly install a Western liberal democracy in the country.

Her vision won out in Washington.

In March of 2011, NATO descended upon the tiny African country and let loose a veritable blitzkrieg of airstrikes against its military units. The intervention resulted in the deaths of an estimated 72 civilians — including many children. Additionally, hundreds of civilians were killed by the rebels that America pitted against Qaddafi’s regime.

Following Qaddafi’s death, with the war officially “won” within less than eight months of the initial bombings, the fallout from the U.S.’s intervention has been predictably drawn-out and problematic. Libya is still qualitatively worse off than it was before 2011: Centralized government has largely collapsed; roving bands of militias and racketeers imprison, brutalize and execute people en masse, then burn villages to the ground. ISIS, the Frankenstein that emerged from the U.S.’s intervention in Iraq, has entered the country and set up shop. 

Feminist activist Medea Benjamin has given a good summation of the contrast between pre and post-intervention Libya:

Before Libya’s “liberation” by Western forces in the form of NATO, it was the richest country in Africa. Libyans had free healthcare and education. Today Libyans have almost no functioning public services, with daily blackouts and water shortages…[and Libya] is considered a “failed state” run by extremist militias and two opposing governments vying for power.

Before Western intervention, Libya was a stable, albeit dictatorial nation — one which had high levels of unemployment, but which provided free education and healthcare to its citizens. Libya also reportedly had “the lowest infant mortality and the highest life expectancy in all of Africa” and also saw women’s rights lurch forward by leaps and bounds. According to the New York Times, “[Qaddafi] expanded women’s education, sharply reduced illiteracy among women, enabled women to enter new professions, and conspicuously included uniformed women in both the army and the police.”

Now, after the country has split “into a patchwork of city-states dominated by various regional, ideological or criminal armed” factions, the fates of women are being left to the various “strict religious or extremist groups,” many of which adhere to traditionalist, deeply patriarchal views of women that treat them as second class citizens. The brutal murder of activist Salwa Bugaighis in the spring of 2014 has been hailed by many as symbolic of the larger backslides for women across the country.

Clearly lionizing a dictator is not the goal here. But pointing out the difference between the stable society that Qaddafi crafted and the chaotic, Hobbesian realities that now plague Libyans is an important distinction to make if we’re going to weigh the worth of this “intervention.”

Clinton has defended her actions in Libya using the same jingoistic phraseologies that are always used when attempting to justify American foreign policy debacles: She reminds us that Qaddafi was a “murderous dictator” who had “American blood on his hands,” and the intervention eventually lead to Libya’s first “free election.” As Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic notes, these ridiculous, decontextualized defenses offer little in the way of rational justification or explanation. To the contrary, “A strong case can be made that the [Libyan] war made Americans less safe.”

Americans voting for Hillary over Sanders based on “foreign policy experience” have to admit that they’re committing to a leader who has all the tell-tale signs of being a hawk. Her self-proclaimed tutelage by Henry Kissinger — a key architect of some of the Vietnam War’s worst carnage (as well as a firm believer in the virtues of U.S. imperialism) — is unsettling at best, and frightening at worst.

At the end of the day, Clinton’s foreign policy credentials are the kind of doublethink that is a serious blind spot for liberals: what they actively decried in Bush, they’ve tacitly accepted from Obama, and are apt to support under Hillary. It’s not as if the bombings and invasions have drastically changed since 2007; it’s merely the parties doing the bombings and invasions. If progressives are going to continue to tolerate these brands of unilateral, interminable “intervention” from Democratic presidents, they have no right to complain when the next conservative does it. There’s every reason to be concerned, not enthused, about the kind of foreign policy “experience” that Clinton will bring to the world stage if elected president.


Lucas Ropek is a journalist based in Massachusetts. He worked for the Working Families Party in NYC on issues of income inequality and worker rights. His interests include U.S. foreign policy, pop-culture, and freedom fries.

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