When President Barack Obama gave his “degrade and destroy” speech about waging war on ISIS in the summer of 2014, he was careful to drive home one point in particular: This would not be another endless boondoggle.
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama said. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” Instead, he added, the U.S. would play a limited role, protecting “America’s core interests” but leaving the great bulk of the fighting to regional allies.
Abroad as much as at home, Obama isn’t big on constraints.
The latest plan for expansion of the war on ISIS concerns Libya, where the terrorist organization has about 3,000 militants—a number that is quickly climbing as new recruits arrive, ready to wreak havoc. ISIS has seized control of Sirte, a city of 80,000 on the coast of the Mediterranean. It controls about 150 miles of coastline and has launched attacks in Tripoli and Tobruk, the respective hosts of Libya’s two rival “governments,” as well as Benghazi.
In response, Obama has given the Pentagon the go-ahead to explore military action in Libya—that is, military action beyond the commandos already on the ground. “The president has made clear that we have the authority to use military force,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently. Dunford anticipates a decision will be made within weeks.
Of course, what Obama is less eager to mention is the fact ISIS exists in Libya largely thanks to the 2011 intervention he authorized with the enthusiastic encouragement of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The power vacuum left by the removal and execution of Muammar Gaddafi, a goal local militants accomplished with American air support, is precisely what allowed ISIS to extend its insidious network to northern Africa.
Clinton may giggle about her pet intervention, but its aftermath has been no laughing matter—and the link between the 2011 intervention and the current ISIS occupation is clear. (In fact, one leader in ISIS’ Libya faction was prominent in the effort to overthrow Gaddafi.)
And it’s not just ISIS: There are “probably six or eight other terrorist groups that have gathered in Libya,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to the Senate. “So it’s a magnet because, essentially, it’s ungoverned.”
This terrorist infestation is an eventuality which Obama and Clinton, of all people, should have been able to see coming. Libya’s chaos today is Iraq 2.0—albeit with a very compressed timeline. Just like Iraq, pre-intervention Libya wasn’t free, but it was stable. And just like Iraq, American intervention in Libya paved the way for a terrorist toehold in a country that previously had problems—but not ISIS problems.
Clinton especially maintains that her war in Libya was “smart power at its best,” which she insists had humanitarian relief, not regime change, as its goal. Both of those claims, undermined by evidence from the intelligence community and simple observation of Libya’s current state, find little support outside the Clinton/Obama camp.
Yet for these two, facts and recent history pose no obstacles. With a renewed intervention in Libya now underway, there seems little risk in speculating that regime change in Syria may be our next misadventure, whether in the final days of Obama’s presidency or in the early days of Clinton’s should she win in November.
And with that hypothetical Clinton win, we are all but guaranteed an endless cycle of repetition of her Libyan mistake.
Reflecting on the turmoil in Libya in October, Clinton mused that absent a strong power, in “unstable places, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, aggressors seek to fill the vacuum.”
She’s right that extremism is eager to fill a vacuum—but what she fails to admit is that Libya is a vacuum of her own making.