At Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s second annual Women in the World summit, the former president gave a candid and expansive conversation ranging from his views on Libya (where his support for a no-fly zone is at odds with the Obama administration’s position) to why we’ve never had a female president. Lloyd Grove reports. Plus, watch Women in the World video highlights and follow our live blog.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been cautiously occupying the fence on whether the United States should help establish a no-fly zone over Libya—falling in line with Obama administration policy to build international consensus before deciding what to do.
Photos: Women in the World, Day One
But the secretary’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, came out strongly Thursday night for the controversial military measure to help the Libyan rebels in their struggle to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
“We have the planes to make an appropriate contribution to this,” the 42nd president told an influential dinner crowd attending Newsweek & The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit at Manhattan’s Millennium Hotel. “I wouldn’t do it if they hadn’t asked,” Clinton said, referring to anti-Gaddafi rebel leaders who have publicly and repeatedly requested the no-fly zone to stop bombardment from Gaddafi’s air force. “We should do it.”
Clinton, sporting a dark three-piece suit and a bright yellow tie, argued that Gaddafi himself has already internationalized the conflict by hiring foreign mercenaries “at $2,000 a day,” to kill Libyans. “It’s not a fair fight,” the former president said, under questioning by Newsweek and Daily Beast Editor in Chief Tina Brown. “They’re being killed by mercenaries. I think we should support them.”
Thursday morning, Hillary Clinton had espoused a much more restrained policy while testifying before a congressional committee, stressing that the no-fly zone remains an option on the table but one fraught with pitfalls and complications. Her view echoed that of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who told Congress last week that establishing a no-fly zone over Libya would entail bombing the country’s air defenses—essentially going to war.
“I don’t want to preempt the secretary of State—she’s the only one with influence in the family,” Clinton said
“I don’t want to preempt the secretary of State—she’s the only one with influence in the family,” Clinton said, noting that his wife will be the featured speaker at Friday night’s Women in the World session. “I go out of my way never to get security briefings that the White House doesn’t ask me to get,” he said, joking that that he was speaking from a position of “complete ignorance.” “So if she contradicts me tomorrow night, you can agree with her.”
When he was still president, Clinton recalled, he found himself talking to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about Gaddafi. “You think Gaddafi’s crazy, don’t you?” Mubarak told him. “I do,” Clinton replied. “You’re right,” Mubarak said.
Clinton spoke sympathetically about the deposed Egyptian president, although he praised the home-grown reform movement that drove Mubarak from power. “The searing experience of his adult life was standing there and watching Anwar Sadat get his brains blown out,” Clinton said, by way of explaining Mubarak’s reluctance to allow democratic institutions to flourish in Egypt.
In the audience were women’s rights activists from around the world—the summit is co-hosted by Diane von Furstenberg, Meryl Streep, Facebook's chief operating offficer Sheryl Sandberg, President of the Rockefeller Foundation Judith Rodin, and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank. Clinton gave the crowd a dazzling tour of the Middle East and North Africa, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. With his virtuosic command of obscure facts, the former president noted that “Morocco is the Saudi Arabia of phosphate,” a chemical used for fertilizer and detergents among other products.
At one point, Clinton recalled raising eyebrows by arguing at an economic conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that Saudi women should be permitted to drive. “I liked to travel there with Huma Abedin—looking like a Dior model, you know,” Clinton said, referring to his wife’s loyal aide, a native Saudi, who is married to Rep. Anthony Weiner. Clinton said he told his Saudi hosts that women should drive because the wife of the Prophet Muhammad was an accomplished businesswoman. “If she were alive today, not only would she be driving, she’d be running the car company,” Clinton recalled saying.
“I’m surprised they didn’t issue a fatwa,” Brown joked.
“It’s a great thing about not being office—you can just say whatever you want,” the former president replied.
Clinton also recounted a private conversation about Afghanistan he had last summer with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose country retreated from the hard-scrabble country after a decade of costly Soviet adventurism.
“I asked him, ‘Do you think we can win in Afghanistan?’ And he said ‘Of course not.’ So I asked, ‘Do you think it’s a mistake for us to be there?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely not—because you’re controlling the playing field with al Qaeda.’” Clinton said the United States might be able to help Afghans banish extremists like al Qaeda and establish a civil society, but we’ll need a partner in order to truly succeed. The Afghan population needs to support the effort at the “grassroots,” he continued, and government corruption will need to be dealt with as well.
Pointing out that the inevitable civilian casualties also present a serious problem, Clinton added: “It’s impossible to underestimate how little people are grateful when you’re doing something they didn’t ask you to do.”
Clinton criticized Rep. Peter King’s hearing Thursday on radicalization of American Muslims, for stereotyping a diverse group and offering a “two-dimensional” view of a complex issue. “Americans are majoring in the minors again,” he said. “It always helps the right when people are insecure.”
When Brown asked Clinton if the United States would ever have a female president, Clinton quipped, “Not my fault”—prompting a big laugh from the crowd.
Who will it be? Brown pressed.
“I don’t know, but there will be—and it’ll be a good thing.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.