Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s chosen running-mate, was enthusiastic about the Libya intervention before he was against it.
This may complicate Trump’s efforts to cast Hillary Clinton as the villain responsible for the continuing turmoil in the North African nation because it reminds us of the uncertainty that ruled debate during those important days.
Like many Republicans who now criticize the Obama administration’s decision to back a coalition of rebel groups, in 2011 Pence encouraged then-Secretary of State Clinton and the president to be even more energetic than they were in support of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.
Serving in the House of Representatives in 2011, Pence declared during a hearing that “Gaddafi must go” and expressed his gratitude “to hear the secretary of state and the administration take that position unambiguously.” Watch, via Khary Penebaker:
— Khary Penebaker (@kharyp) July 16, 2016
“Victory finds a hundred fathers but defeat is an orphan,” Mussolini’s son-in-law once wrote before he was executed for treason. He wasn’t wrong: everyone claims credit for successful enterprises, but when great ventures fail, what everyone wants most is someone to blame — a scapegoat. It’s human nature, and it explains a lot about how Americans have dealt with their disappointment over Libya.
Despite a relatively rapid and complete victory that relied on arm’s-length assistance from NATO air and naval power, the defeat of the old regime was not accompanied by the rise of a new Libyan order. And in the meantime, Americans had already soured on the intervention. Pence, too, was increasingly pessimistic. Sam Stein at HuffPo:
Like other members of Congress, Pence’s enthusiasm for involvement in Libya waned over time. Later in March he told a local radio station that he certainly supported “the decision to enforce a no-fly zone with the wanton slaughter of civilians that was taking place at the hands of Muammar Gaddafi.” But at a town hall meeting captured by an attendee and posted on YouTube, he appeared ambivalent, wondering “who exactly it is that we are helping.”
“What are their intentions?” Pence said. “What is their vision for Libya?”
Here lay the rub in Libya. Because Gaddafi had systematically erased any sign of political organization in the country for decades, Libyans had no unifying ideas besides the ones that were older than his dictatorship — such as tribe and sect — or newly-forged, such as membership in an Islamist militia formed within the crucible of conflict.
And because Barack Obama steadfastly refused to assign a strongman in Gaddafi’s place, which is the normal formula for imperial regime change, there was no one in the country strong enough to establish order. Chaos reigned. Civil disorder carried over due to the absence of clear lines of authority, retarding recovery efforts and spurring refugees to flee the country.
The situation was ripe for jihadists, of course, and Republicans have made the resulting Benghazi attacks a campaign issue against
Obama in 2012 Hillary Clinton in 2016. As Trump put it recently, “Her invasion of Libya handed the country over to ISIS, the barbarians.” Except there was no American invasion of Libya, just as there was no American-appointed government-in-waiting.
Like Pence, who had wanted a “coordinated international response, including a no-fly zone,” Donald Trump ‘evolved’ on the Libyan uprising, turning against it only after the coalition of Libyan groups which won the revolution failed to coalesce into a tranquil, sovereign democracy.
Trump has claimed throughout the campaign that he would have opposed the Libyan intervention in 2011 and that the country would be better off if Muammar Qadhafi were still in power. As BuzzFeed News first reported earlier this year, Trump, on his video blog and in appearances on cable news, pushed for intervening in Libya in 2011 on humanitarian grounds.
Republicans seem to have bet that Trump and Pence can attack Hillary Clinton over Libya in Cleveland next week and thereby win the election in November. But I suspect Clinton will still be more coherent and informed than both men put together when it’s time to debate what’s actually happening in that country right now, and neither will be able to say exactly how they would have done better at the time.
All they know is that a Democrat must serve as scapegoat.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.