The Real Benghazi Scandal

Finishing Michael Mandelbaum’s Mission Failure, I’m struck by his assessment of the U.S. intervention in Libya during the Obama administration. Mandelbaum, an influential professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University writes:

The Libyan operation not only did not replace the Qaddafi dictatorship with a democracy or even a stable government, it turned out not even to qualify as a successful humanitarian intervention. There had been, subsequent analysis suggested, no good reason to believe that Qaddafi’s forces would have massacred civilians had those forces prevailed in the civil war; and the Western intervention prolonged the conflict so that, by one estimate, seven to ten times more Libyans died than would have been the case if the United States and its allies had steered clear of the conflict and Qaddafi’s forces had won it, as they were poised to do in March 2011.

As a candidate for president in 2008 running against the Iraq War, both in his primary against Hillary Clinton and in the general election against John McCain, Barack Obama famously said that he is not against all wars, just dumb wars. Yet, he ultimately waged a dumb war against a non-threatening Muammar Qaddafi.

Mandelbaum’s source for the estimate of the U.S. impact on Libya’s participation in the Arab Spring is Alan J. Kuperman’s A Model Humanitarian Intervention? Reassessing NATO’s Libya Campaign, a peer-reviewed article in the Summer 2013 edition of International Security. If you’re interested in this topic, check out that journal article as well.

The bruhaha around the killing of our ambassador at a consulate building in Benghazi was mostly hot populist air, similar to Democratic attempts to get political traction from the 9/11 Commission Report a decade earlier. However, on the policy question of whether we should have intervened in Libya at all, that’s where the most blame can be levied against Obama, Clinton, and of course, Biden.

And that is where the most interesting trend of the Trump era of the Republican Party resides. Trump has successfully opposed the national security conservative orthodoxy of the GOP, to the point where he’s running to the left of Biden on foreign policy. Given then Vice President Biden’s involvement in what was a rather stark policy fiasco, Libya ought to be a campaign issue in 2024, not as a repeat of the silly role it played in 2016, but rather, a serious policy contrast about America’s proper role in world affairs today.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there