In the lead-up to Hillary Clinton’s marathon testimony before Congress on Benghazi in October 2015, her presidential campaign prepared to make some eye-popping claims—including that Libya would have turned into Syria without U.S. intervention.
That’s according to an internal talking-point memo released in Tuesday’s dump of WikiLeaks emails. WikiLeaks says those emails were hacked from the inbox of Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta. The Clinton campaign is not commenting on whether or not the emails are doctored, and blames the Russian government for the hack.
The memo was sent to Podesta by his assistant, Milia Fisher, on Oct. 21, 2015. That was one day before Clinton’s testimony in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
“Had we opted for inaction, we would have been rebuffing our allies and turning our back on the Libyan people in the face of a murderous dictator,” read one talking point in the document that Fisher sent Podesta. “The truth is that if we hadn’t acted, Libya would look something like what Syria looks like today. So is the unrest in Libya concerning? Of course. Is it better than the alternative? Absolutely.”
In part through Western intervention, the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi regime collapsed. On Oct. 20, 2011, rebels found Gaddafi hiding near in a culvert in his hometown of Sirte, Libya, and killed him shortly afterward. Elections followed a brief period of stability before jihadi groups, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State, claimed Libyan territory.
The current, United Nations-backed government is in a statemate, struggling to expand its influence past the capital, Tripoli.
The Clinton campaign knew the Libya intervention was a political liability to her, so it urged its backers to say that not intervening would have made things much worse—and to blame the violence in part on the Libyan people’s lack of openness to greater U.S. military involvement.
“Attached are the five final TPs docs that comms has right now,” Fisher wrote, indicating the talking points came from the Clinton campaign’s communications team.
Despite the memo’s claim that Libya would have devolved much like Syria had the West not intervened, Libya and Syria are in fact two very different countries. Where Syria is a myriad of ethnicities and sects of Islam, Libya in 2011 was far more monolithic. Libya’s roughly 6 million people were nearly all Sunni Muslims, followers of a certain school of Islam called Maliki. Libya was divided by tribes and three regions that formed the artificially created state. Syria, meanwhile, is home to Russia’s biggest naval presence in the region, and its geography makes it valuable to the West and Iran as well.
Had the West not intervened in Libya, no one can say for sure what would have happened. Gaddafi might have put down the uprising or a years-long civil war could have erupted. But unlike Syria, where war could easily turn into a direct proxy war between various states, the conflict in Libya would likely not have spread far beyond its borders.
The talking points are right on one key point. NATO allies, led by the French, were pushing for U.S. intervention in Libya. But even as Gaddafi’s tanks lined up outside the city of Benghazi, the birthplace of the Libyan uprising, there were concerns within the administration about the consequences of intervening.
The administration believed the French and Italians would lead efforts to stabilize Libya after Gaddafi’s eventual fall. In a March 2011 speech before the National Defense University, President Obama said the U.S. would play a “supporting role” in the assault on Gaddafi’s forces. But as then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates later told The Daily Beast, no one inside the administration knew what the French plan for post-Gaddafi Libya was.
“We were playing it by ear,” Gates explained with resignation.
The French feared that had the West not interfered, Libya would have devolved and refugees would have begun fleeing north toward Europe. As it turns out, the intervention, and lack of post-war plan from both the West and the Libyans who lead the uprisings, contributed to the greatest refugee crisis of the past 100 years. In the past year, thousands of refugees from around the Middle East and northern Africa have left in overfilled boats from Libya’s porous, unprotected shores.
There were lots of reasons for the U.S. to not intervene. Then-Libyan leader Gaddafi had abandoned his nuclear program and, in 2003, turned over the name of Pakistani physicist AQ Khan, whose nuclear-proliferation network had helped North Korea develop its program. And Gaddafi was keeping close tabs on Libyan nationals released from Guantanamo Bay. Gaddafi had been contained, critics of the intervention argued.
To secure the legal means to attack Libya, the U.S. pushed for a United Nations vote that authorized a no-fly zone to stop Gaddafi from killing civilians in Benghazi, where tanks had lined up outside the city in what appeared to be an approaching violent attack on Gaddafi opponents. But the humanitarian campaign to save the lives of Libyans turned into into a push to rid Libya of Gaddafi. U.S. aircraft, which began in May 2011 by bombing sites around Benghazi, slowly moved hundreds of miles west to Tripoli, targeting Gaddafi’s regime and contributing to his October 2011 demise.
In another talking point, the Clinton communications team directed supporters to divert responsibility for the violence away from Clinton.
“Our efforts were complicated by the Libyans’ resistance to outsized foreign influence on their rebuilding process,” one of the talking points said. “Certainly, they never would have accepted an outside peacekeeping force, nor was anyone eager to put boots on the ground.”
Libyans were indeed eager to rid themselves of Gaddafi’s 42-year rule without outside help. But even in the early days of the uprising, it was clear that the opposition had neither the organization nor resources to govern an oil-rich state, filled with pockets of Islamists on their own. As Gates explained, there was a high risk of unintended consequences associated with even limited intervention.
This memo gives a valuable window into how the Clinton campaign put together its communications strategy on the Benghazi attacks and subsequent violence in Libya: When facing criticism, claim anything other than your decision would have been apocalyptic. And if your decision had a bloody fallout, blame the victims.