When U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens was killed, Susan Rice was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Yet, there are people who have spent hours and hours watching cable news and even live coverage of hearings on the 2012 Benghazi attacks who don’t know that. The impression that she was somehow responsible for diplomatic security in North Africa has somehow permeated the perspective of those who tend to imbibe the Kool-Aid of populist rage.
In her memoir, Tough Love, Rice unintentionally reveals how she actually does bear some responsibility for the mess. She was a relative hawk in the otherwise dovish Obama administration, and Rice advocated for overthrowing Mummar Gaddafi. There was European and even Arab support for establishing a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi from bombing Benghazi which had revolted against the government in Tripoli in the wake of the Arab Spring. Rice supported intervention, but she wanted to see more: “The no-fly zone seemed a half-assed response, like being a little bit pregnant.”
But several prominent members of the Obama administration opposed U.S. intervention. One of them sits in the Oval Office today:
On early Tuesday evening, I stepped out of a vehement and inconclusive Council debate to walk back across First Avenue to our office at the U.S. Mission in time to join a meeting with President Obama and his national security principals via secure videoconference. Hillary was plugged in remotely from Paris. The issue—what to do about Libya—was the same one we were debating in the Council. Qaddafi’s forces were moving steadily eastward down the coast capturing town after town from the rebels and closing in on the insurgency’s stronghold in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. Qaddafi had vowed to wipe out its residents, warning: “Prepare yourselves from tonight. We will find you in your closets.”
The Principals debated back and forth, as the president listened intently and, per usual, asked probing questions. Gates, Biden, Donilon, and White House chief of staff Bill Daley argued we should not intervene. While taking the humanitarian risks into account, these colleagues stressed that, ultimately, we had no compelling national security interest in Libya and should not involve ourselves in another Middle Eastern conflict. Even though the Arab League had requested U.N. (and thus U.S.) involvement, my colleagues maintained that Libya was not our fight and, effectively, that the likely costs of letting Qaddafi take Benghazi and retain his iron grip were acceptable when compared with the risks.
Rice portrays herself as the leading voice for military action. Why was she so influential if Rice was just the UN ambassador? The Obama administration made that position a cabinet-level rank, giving her a seat on the National Security Council:
I argued the opposite—we should try to save innocent lives. The Arab Spring would be killed in the crib if Qaddafi were allowed to wipe out his citizens. The country was important as a linchpin in central North Africa, tucked between volatile Egypt and Tunisia and a gateway both to Europe and Africa’s terrorist-infested Sahel region to the south. Though not yet a genocide, mass atrocities were certain as Qaddafi brandished the means and the motive to kill thousands imminently. I maintained that President Obama should not allow what could be perceived as his Rwanda to occur—a moment when the world looked to the U.S. for leadership, and we blinked. A comparatively limited U.S. military commitment could make a meaningful difference. We should not agree simply to a no-fly zone. If we were serious, we needed a much wider U.N. mandate to protect civilians, and I believed there was a reasonable chance we could get one out of the Security Council.
Ben Rhodes, Tony Blinken, and Samantha Power joined me in advocating for action. To my surprise, so did Hillary Clinton. Having just visited Egypt, and now in Europe for consultations with Arab and European leaders, she changed her mind, morphing from reluctant to intervene to supporting U.S. involvement.
This debate raged bitterly for hours.
Obama was frustrated. We were under pressure to make a decision, and the only option he had been given was a feckless no-fly zone, which everyone agreed wasn’t worth the candle. Why, he railed at his national security advisor and Pentagon team, were we not in a position to consider viable alternatives? He abruptly adjourned the meeting to host an annual dinner for the four-star combatant commanders and their wives. “We’ll come back here in two hours. By then, I want some real options on the table,” Obama ordered.
Four years before this, President Obama was able to defeat Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary mostly because he opposed invading Iraq and she supported doing so. Libya became Obama’s Iraq when he was sucked into the same sense of American hegemony that leads us into such fiascos.
When the NSC meeting resumed, we discussed concrete options, including an approach that would entail first bombing Libyan air defense systems to gain exclusive control of the skies and then targeting Qaddafi’s heavy weapons—tanks, artillery, aircraft—and any massing Libyan troops if they threatened civilian areas. All agreed this was a more logical approach if we were going to engage militarily, but the Principals still differed on whether or not to act. As he often did, President Obama polled not just the Principals at the table for their views but also the expert staff seated along the walls of the wood-paneled White House Situation Room. The staff generally favored action.
Having digested all the various perspectives and asked piercing questions, Obama spoke. He said he would favor U.S. military action, but only under several conditions: 1) that I could obtain UNSC authorization for a robust mandate to protect civilians; 2) that Hillary could get the Arab League countries to agree to participate; and 3) that the U.S. role would be limited—we would launch the attacks, take out Qaddafi’s air defenses, and establish air superiority but after that the Europeans, especially the Brits and French, would have to carry the bulk of the load.
She got her U.N. resolution, but allied capabilities proved too limited and U.S. Central Command ultimately had to do the heavy lifting. Rice’s nonchalance about the impact of her role in getting the United States into a shooting war comes off strongly in this revealing scene:
Ten days later, I so badly needed this break in Anguilla to process Dad’s passing as well as to comfort and be comforted by the kids and Ian. Soon after our arrival in Anguilla, the president gave the order to initiate air strikes in Libya. I was slowly starting to decompress, absorbing the sunshine and relative quiet.
On our third day, as I played my usual morning game of tennis with Ian, one of the DS agents came abruptly on the court, interrupting our rally to announce that the White House chief of staff needed to talk to me. That’s strange, I thought—Bill Daley almost never called me. I had known the large, balding Bill Daley since he was commerce secretary in the Clinton administration. I left the court and climbed into DS’s SUV to have cool and quiet for the call.
“Where are you?” Daley said as soon as he picked up.
“I’m in Anguilla with my family.”
He shouted, “You start a fucking war and then you go on vacation to the Caribbean?”
Shocked to a chill, I replied evenly: “I am on a long-planned vacation. I am the U.N. ambassador. My part of this equation is done. I passed the resolution, and I did the press work. What else could I possibly do? I don’t control any aspect of the military action.”
“I can’t believe you are away.”
Incredulous, I asked, “Did President Obama ask you to call me?”
“No,” he conceded.
“Well, Bill, thank you,” and I politely ended the call.
Well, I’ve canceled vacations because of less. Rice would later travel to Libya, basking in the glory of having let slip the dogs of war.
When I visited Libya in November, less than a month after Qaddafi was killed by rebel soldiers in Sirte, his last stronghold, I was welcomed with more warmth and joy than I have experienced before or since as a representative of the United States on foreign soil. Massive crowds gathered in the central square in Benghazi to greet me, many by raising their right hands and moving their heads swiftly from side to side, mimicking my body language as I scanned the Security Council table to count the yes votes for the historic Libya resolution. On the walls of buildings surrounding the square were pictures of hundreds of young Libyan men murdered or missing under Qaddafi’s rule. I was surprised to see a big sign captioned, “Fantastic Four—God Bless You All. Thanks For All,” with large photos of U.K. prime minister David Cameron, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, President Obama, and me!
In the streets of Benghazi, men and women swarmed me, asked to shake my hand, and thrust their kids into my arms to hold. The large complement of Diplomatic Security and the rebel security guards who protected me seemed a bit nervous, but the tight crowds were clearly friendly, and I was never fearful.
As my team and I flew out of Benghazi, my wise, young special assistant and friend, Priya Singh, shared a message for me from one of our Libyan escorts. He said that for all the public displays of gratitude we saw that day, the people of Benghazi would never be able to thank the U.S. enough, because just before the U.N. vote and President Obama’s decision to intervene, Qaddafi’s troops were closing in on the city with orders to rape and kill. Without U.S. leadership, leadership, they would not be there to greet us. Deeply moved by his words, I confessed to Priya, “I feel like I could be done today. I feel I’ve done something.” war.
So basically: “Mission Accomplished!” And just as the chaos in Iraq proved more deadly than the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussain, the state of nature we helped create in Libya was, oops, another unintended consequence.
Later, a very brave American patriot, Ambassador Stevens, risked his life to engage with the locals. This has actually been uncommon valor. In recent decades, our embassies have become insular compounds, bunkers that have our diplomats hunkering down in rather than putting a persuasive human face on retail global politics. Ambassador Stevens risked his life to more effectively advance American interests, and he paid with his life. I wish his personal courage had played a more prominent part in the way this story got told.
When it came time for the Department of State to address the American public about what happened, the senior leadership made itself scarce. Rice was asked to go on the Sunday morning talkshows and provide the Obama administration’s response. Rice reveals that her mother gave her foreboding advice:
Mom asked next, “What are your plans for the weekend?” I reminded her that on Saturday I had long-standing arrangements to take the kids to the Ohio State University, where I had delivered the commencement address in June, for a tailgate and football game against U.C. Berkeley. Then I added, “And on Sunday, I will be appearing on all five Sunday shows.”
Mom gave me a skeptical look.
This was only three days after the Benghazi attack, as my mother knew from following the news closely. It was a week that began with the swarming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, and a wave of anti-American protests directed at U.S. outposts across the globe. I reminded her that it was nine days before the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly when President Obama and scores of world leaders would gather on my turf to discuss such issues as Iran’s nuclear program, the Palestinians’ bid for statehood status, and Syria. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ramping up his U.S. public relations campaign to pressure the Obama administration into a military confrontation with Iran. These were issues that I addressed publicly with frequency. And, I added, as she well knew, the presidential election campaign was heating up. For all these reasons, I explained, the administration had to put out a senior foreign policy official on television.
Mom immediately pressed me, “Why do you have to go on the shows? Where is Hillary?”
“I think that Hillary is wiped after a brutal week,” I said. “The White House asked me to appear in her stead and, even though this isn’t how I wanted to spend my weekend, I’m willing to do my part.”
She was unrelenting, “I smell a rat. This is not a good idea. Can’t you get out of it?” Dismissively, I replied, “Mom, don’t be ridiculous. I’ve done the shows many times before. It will be fine.”
Much would later be made for her appearance at these shows. Rice simply delivered the latest information available to perform this thankless task. The CIA’s initial assessment was that the attack was a spontaneous eruption in response to an American-produced documentary. Later analysis showed it was a preplanned attack by Ansar al-Sharia. The political narrative of whether the Obama administration considered this a terrorist attack or a mere protest stole the show for the next couple of years of stylized investigatory melodramas.
Certainly, the Obama administration held ultimate responsibility for the security of U.S. personnel in Libya, in a happened-on-their-watch sort of way, just like the Bush administration held ultimate responsibility for the security lapse of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the Trump administration held ultimate responsibility for the security of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6th of this year. The Benghazi investigations ended up becoming mindless political show trials not unlike what may emerge from today’s hearings that are looking for an organized insurrection.
The political narrative of Benghazi has drowned out the policy narrative. Susan Rice wasn’t directly responsible for the Benghazi attacks or some kind of a coverup. The blame she deserves comes from her role in successfully advocating the U.S. military overthrow Gaddafi, creating the inevitable chaos that followed. Her memoir goes to great lengths to portray the treatment she received during the Benghazi investigations as unfair, and she has a point. What Rice doesn’t fess up to is that she holds some liability for the general anarchy in Libya that would not have existed had the President not taken her advice to engage in regime change.
Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.