New York Times articles intended to explain how the US intervened in Libya show a government in chaos
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
The New York Times has recently published two linked articles about the US role in the 2011 Libyan crisis (see here and here).
The articles have attracted a lot of interest because of what they say about Hillary Clinton.
It has long been known that she was the key advocate of the US intervention in Libya, and the two articles show the extent to which this was so.
There have been some complaints about the articles. It us said that they show Hillary Clinton in too favourable a light. It has also been said the articles ignore the extent to which the uprising against Gaddafi in Libya was clearly pre-planned and pre-prepared by outsiders.
Both criticisms are valid, though I would say that in the case of the uprising in Libya the events point to France, Britain and Qatar being behind the uprising rather than the US.
It was apparent at the time that the US military and Obama himself were unenthusiastic about the intervention, and the “salty” comments to the French of Susan Rice - at the time the US’s ambassador to the UN, now Obama’s National Security Adviser - which are mentioned in the article, make it clear the US felt it was being led by the nose into an adventure in Libya that had been authored by its allies.
My own detailed account of the Libyan conflict from start to finish - written shortly after Gaddafi’s gruesome death - and in which I discuss all these issues, can be found here.
In my opinion, though The New York Times articles need to be read carefully and certainly do not tell the whole truth, they do give a reasonably accurate account of the discussions that took place in the White House both before and during the Libyan intervention and in its immediate aftermath
Their importance is less for what they tell us about Hillary Clinton - the broad outlines of which were already well known - and more about the process of decision making in Washington.
They reveal a totally chaotic picture, with key decisions made during ad hoc meetings in the White House, against a background of continuous bureaucratic infighting.
There is no sign that any of the discussions took place within the legal framework of any of the established institutions of the US government, such as the Cabinet or the National Security Council.
There is one brief reference to something called “Obama’s security cabinet”, but this is clearly an informal gathering of Obama’s senior foreign policy and security advisers meeting with him in the White House, not some formally constituted body.
Worse still, there is no sense of a government forming policy on the basis of well-established and carefully formulated principles that underpin its foreign policy and around which policy is shaped.
No one involved in the discussions said it would be wrong to attack a small country experiencing an internal crisis, or that a peaceful solution should be sought through the United Nations or via discussions with the international community - including the African and Arab Leagues and the Russians.
No one seems to have suggested sending a fact finding mission to Libya to find out what was really going on there, or to speak to Gaddafi and the rebels to find out what their views were, and whether a peaceful way out of the crisis could be found.
The only outside contacts the US government seems to have had were with its own allies - principally the British and the French - and also with certain exiled Libyan politicians who met with Hillary Clinton, and who managed after what were obviously only superficial discussions to win her over to their side.
No one raised the possibility - if there were genuine concerns about a massacre in Misurata or Benghazi - of seeking the UN Security Council’s or even Gaddafi’s agreement to the sending of a peacekeeping force to those cities in the context of a general call for a ceasefire (for the record, Gaddafi would have agreed), or of working with the UN authorities, the Libyans, the African and Arab Leagues and the Russians, to work out a proper peace plan for the country.
Instead the whole discussion fell by default into a false binary - whether to intervene or not intervene - with the UN Security Council sidelined and treated simply as a rubber stamp for whatever the US chose to do.
The opponents of the intervention come across less as realists and more as cynics.
They opposed it on the narrowest possible grounds - that it would not be in the US’s interests for the US to intervene - with more than a hint that their real concern was for the political standing of the Obama administration - unsurprising given the potential damage another failed intervention might have done to Obama’s chances of re-election the following year.
It is a striking - and dismaying - fact that on an issue of war and peace the only arguments made from morality about a war against a small and defenceless country that was threatening no-one were made by those - like Hillary Clinton - who argued for war.
As for the President himself, he seems to have been almost entirely disengaged from the decision making process. Instead of imposing his authority he went along with whoever seemed to be prevailing in the policy jungle, which in the Libyan case turned out to be Hillary Clinton.
The result is the destruction of a country and the creation of a humanitarian crisis far worse than the one the intervention was supposed to solve.
Once again it is impossible to avoid a comparison with Russia.
As I have discussed previously, the image of Putin making decisions on his own after consulting just a small group of cronies, is a myth.
The Russian government is in reality highly structured, with key decisions of domestic and foreign policy made by the Security Council, of which the heads of the military, security and intelligence services are all part.
The Security Council is in turn supported by two other key institutions - the Council of Ministers and the State Council.
It is because decision making in Russia is so highly structured that it comes across as clear and consistent.
There was a time in the 1950s when the US government was as highly structured as the Russian government is today. In the 1950s the Cabinet and the National Security Council played a key role, and had not become the flickering shadows they are today (on the decline of the Cabinet see here; on the decline of the National Security Council see here and especially the review of its history under various Presidents provided here).
Though the situation has got especially bad under Obama, the decline in the US’s policy making institutions is a long standing process that goes back to the 1960s. It is unlikely to get better, and is more likely to get worse, whoever wins the election in November.
Whereas Russia has a modern government, the US now has a post-modern government - with all that implies for international relations and world peace.
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