This is getting to be a habit with Bernie Sanders, isn’t it, these misrepresentations at the debates of his foreign-policy positions? As I wrote back in October, he misrepresented in an earlier debate what he called his support for President Obama’s Syria policy. He took a position opposite the administration’s on two Syria-related matters that came before Congress.
Saturday night he was slippery again on Libya. He went after Hillary Clinton for being “too much into regime change,” especially with respect to Libya. But Clinton was ready and hit back: “With all due respect, senator, you voted for regime change with respect to Libya. You joined the Senate in voting to get rid of Gaddafi, and you asked that there be a Security Council validation of that with a resolution.”
Clinton wasn’t quite right, but she wasn’t totally wrong either. Sanders didn’t exactly “vote for” regime change in Libya. But he did back a resolution brought forth by New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez—that fact alone ought to alarm the Berniebros, what with Menendez being the only authentic neocon among Washington Democrats that I can think of—that called on Muammar Gaddafi to resign. It passed the Senate by unanimous consent. Sanders was a co-sponsor.
In fact if you read the left press a bit, I mean the real left, you encounter quite a bit of unhappiness with Sanders and his purported hypocrisy on matters of war and peace. Here for example is a writer for Counterpunch lambasting Sanders’s martial impurities: “And here is where Sanders’ greatest equivocation has come. In spite of claims of being antiwar, his ‘hawkish’ support of Clinton’s military actions in the 1999 Kosovo War caused one of his advisers to quit. When antiwar activists occupied Sanders’ office in 1999 because of that support of Clinton’s war policies, he had them arrested.”
So maybe when it comes to attacking Clinton he should stick to Wall Street.
The more pressing question here, and one that the debate exchange over Libya revealed (or re-revealed, since it has been known), is the extent to which Libya is going to be a liability for Clinton assuming she is the nominee. Everyone agrees that 1) Clinton supported toppling Gaddafi and 2) everything is a far worse mess in Libya now than it was under Gaddafi, especially with the presence of an ISIS branch seemingly gaining force in the country.
Both of those things are true. And yet everyone seems to forget that at the time of our intervention, Gaddafi’s regime promised that it was going to slaughter Benghazi residents by the thousands. That’s what we stopped. Whatever has happened since, we were really wrong to do that?
There exists every possibility that what would have started with 10,000 (or whatever the number) slaughtered in Benghazi would have devolved into a Syria-style civil war. There certainly should have been more follow through in establishing order after Gaddafi was killed, but neither the United States nor anyone else wanted to get too deeply involved there.
But it’s a mess, and Clinton is going to have to answer for it next fall. The nature of the attack, however, will be different, depending on who the Republican is. If it’s Marco Rubio, well, he too supported the Libya intervention. More recently, Rubio has to tried to outline the additional steps we should have taken to secure the country, but that’s always Monday-morning quarterbacking and nobody takes it very seriously. So Clinton can deal with him easily enough, I think.
Trickier challenges will come from Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Trump and Cruz now unapologetically take the old Cold War position, which is that these world messes aren’t our problem and the United States is infinitely better off with a bunch of dictators in place keeping a lid on things. There will be much appeal in that position for a big chunk of Americans. And it’s not without certain merits—broadly speaking, the region would be “better off,” certainly from the point of view of U.S. national security interests, if Saddam Hussein were still throwing thousands of people in prison and torturing dissidents and gassing Kurds.
But...are our politics really that vapid and stupid, that all we can do now as a country is to lurch from one amoral extreme to the other? Let dictators do whatever they want, kill and torture and rape whomever they want to, as long as they’re not bothering us; or start ground wars against them based on a set of morally irresponsible and indefensible assumptions? Is that really the level on which we’re destined to have this discourse?
I hope Clinton will use this opportunity next fall to identify for us some kind of middle ground. No, we can’t go around promoting regime change promiscuously. But this world simply isn’t the world of the 1950s. Back then people in developing countries may not even have known what rights they were missing. Now, they know. They yearn for them. The country that has spent more or less its entire existence telling the rest of the world about how it is the great repository and champion of those rights can no longer ignore that yearning. Clinton will need to articulate all that somehow.
And at some point she’ll be called upon to say something she hasn’t wanted to say yet, for fear of seeming to criticize the administration she worked for, and say what it is she’ll do differently in Libya in particular.
Late last week, with few Americans noticing, representatives of the various factions within Libyan politics signed a UN-brokered agreement to form a national unity government that would fight ISIS and try to bring a more general stability to the country. This is undoubtedly what Clinton was referring to when she said “I’m not giving up on Libya, and I don’t think anybody should.” If she’s lucky, this deal takes hold, and by next October things in Libya are looking up.
Under Bush, we had overreach. Under Obama, many say we’ve had underreach. Under Trump or Cruz, we’d certainly have underreach; they just don’t want to be involved at all. And by the way, Vladimir Putin’s Trump-love isn’t just about two psychotic bullies seeing themselves in each other—Trump’s stated positions on NATO expansion and the Ukraine conflict are music to Putin’s ears. Clinton needs to show us what plain old reach would look like.