It was opposite day for Marco Rubio during the foreign policy section of Thursday’s CNN-Telemundo GOP debate.
Addressing the 2011 US and NATO intervention in Libya, Rubio made a startling claim:
“We didn’t topple Gaddafi, the Libyan people toppled Gaddafi.”
Rubio seems afflicted with a bad case of amnesia, because in 2011, he was a leading Republican voice calling for a Libyan intervention. That March, he went so far to say that “when an American president says the guy needs to go, you better make sure that it happens because your credibility and your stature in the world is on the line.”
Rubio’s right in a technical sense–the Libyan rebels, not the US Marines, physically deposed Gaddafi, but the Senator’s answer only makes sense if we’re willing to overlook some pretty glaring facts.
Namely, that as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn in March 2011, we fired approximately 124 Tomahawk cruise missiles and deployed B-2 stealth bombers, F-15 and F-16 fighters, A-10 air-to-ground fighters, and AC-130 gunships and a plethora of support ships and aircraft to to disable Libyan anti-air defenses and enforce a no-fly-zone to neutralize the Libyan air force. By the end of March, the no-fly-zone morphed into active air-strikes on Gaddafi’s ground forces under the next phase of the intervention, Operation Unified Protector, which continued until October 2011.
The Libyan people may have deposed Gaddafi, but the 5,300 sorties that the US flew in the first four months alone of Unified Protector decisively tipped the scales for them.
In his answer, Rubio argued that radical Islamists took “advantage of the vacuum” because regime change didn’t happen quickly enough. What Rubio never understood is that removing the only force holding the artificial nation together is what enabled radical factions to take advantage of Libya’s vacuum in the first place. Rubio also ignored that the intervention was our fastest since the first Gulf War. Instead, he claimed that America’s important, though smaller role in the intervention compared to Iraq and Afghanistan was simply “leading from behind.”
Engaging in regime change in the first place sealed Libya’s fate, not how quickly we did it. Sending in boots on the ground would have only made Libya another Iraq-style quagmire we’d be dealing with today.
There’s an even more important point about Rubio’s answer that needs stressing. As a major Republican cheerleader to topple Gaddafi, he shares responsibility with Hillary Clinton for creating the underlying conditions that lead to the attack on our consulate in Benghazi.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, neoconservative and current Rubio adviser William Kristol argued that “democratizing the country should not be too tall an order for the world’s sole superpower.”
Rubio looked at Libya with similar disregard for the unintended consequences of regime change. Both were proved horribly wrong. Neither learned their lesson.