Worse Than Benghazi

Benghazi is a sideshow. Hillary Clinton’s real scandal is her role in pushing the war against Libya.

Then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton works at a desk inside a C-17 military plane bound for Tripoli, Libya in October 2011. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973, authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. That same day — as revealed by Pentagon audio tapes obtained by the Washington Times — President Qaddafi’s son Seif tried to call a US general to try to negotiate a ceasefire.

Every now and then — on Israel and Palestine, for example — the US military brass takes the term “national security” literally and needs to be set straight by civilian leaders. Never mind that the UN resolution had urged diplomacy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instructed the Joint Chiefs of Staff not to negotiate with the Libyan government.

The Pentagon, however, enlisted an intelligence asset to maintain a secret channel of communication with Libya. “Everything I am getting from the State Department is that they do not care about being part of this,” this liaison told Seif Qaddafi after the NATO bombing had begun. “Secretary Clinton does not want to negotiate at all.”

Later the Libyan government made another attempt to negotiate through an intermediary, American businessman and former US Navy officer Charles Kubic. According to Kubic, General Carter Ham, head of AFRICOM, agreed to participate in this effort to halt the war. Qaddafi proposed a seventy-two-hour-truce, then said he would step down to allow for a transition provided that NATO agreed to maintain the Libyan army, lift sanctions against him and his family, and provide them safe passage.

Was the offer genuine and workable? We’ll never know, because Clinton shut down the negotiations.

Thanks to news reports — mostly in right-wing outlets — over the last several months, a clearer picture of the US’s 2011 war on Libya has emerged. While some of the analysis in these pieces is suspect, much of the reporting is well-sourced, and it should be making life uncomfortable for Clinton.

But she carries on unscathed partly because few American elites want to talk about the US destruction of Libya and partly because her GOP adversaries continue to fixate on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. The wayward probe allows her to depict herself, accurately, as the target of a partisan effort. A manufactured scandal clouds a real one.

The new information is more confirmation than revelation. News from different sources — the Pentagon audio tapes, Sidney Blumenthal’s emails to Clinton, and a grand jury investigation of a private defense contractor — vindicates opponents of the war, especially those who recognized it as an act of aggression.

And it indicts those who bought and hawked the humanitarian case — a group that includes scores of prominent liberals and leftists. Consistent with their collective quiet on Libya since 2011, liberal-left pundits and media outlets have mostly ignored the recent news except to object to the Right’s attacks on Clinton. For loyal Democrats and liberal ironists, including many who supported the US war on Libya, “Benghazi” is a joke about GOP obsession. For Libyans, Benghazi is a ravaged city in a ravaged country.

Libya’s decimation was the inevitable result of the removal of its government, and the removal of its government was the express goal of the US-NATO war. To build support for the military offensive, American officials lied about the humanitarian threat posed by Qaddafi; to execute it, they empowered and armed an opposition coalition they knew was rife with al-Qaeda allies and other reactionary forces.

The war shouldn’t be blamed solely on Clinton, who, after all, wasn’t president. For that matter, it shouldn’t be blamed solely on President Obama. US allies — both in Europe and the Gulf — played important roles, and imperialism is a power greater than an individual or group of individuals. It has its own imperatives, its own class interests to serve.

Yet Clinton was the driving force in the administration, taking up a cause championed at lower levels by Obama adviser Samantha Power and UN ambassador Susan Rice.

It appears that Clinton was ambivalent about the war until her March 14 meeting in Paris with opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril, which was arranged by Bernard Henri-Levi. “I talked extensively about the dreams of a democratic state . . . and how the international community should protect civilians from a possible genocide like the one [that] took place in Rwanda,” Jibril told the Washington Times. “I felt by the end of the meeting I passed the test. Benghazi was saved.”

The prospect of mass atrocities was central to American officials’ case for war — as it usually is. Qaddafi was, in Clinton’s words, a “creature” who “will destroy anyone or anything in his way.” Probably because they knew they weren’t telling the truth, American leaders avoided using the word “genocide.” Clinton spoke of “tens of thousands” of deaths, and Obama said he acted to prevent a “bloodbath,” “atrocities,” and “mass graves.” The White House circulated an op-ed by Rwandan President Paul Kagame titled, “Rwandans know why Gadhafi must be stopped.”

Analysts such as Alan Kuperman challenged the official line at the time, pointing out that Qaddafi had not targeted civilians in other cities he’d recaptured. Now the Washington Times has provided evidence of a misinformation campaign, reporting that the Pentagon knew that Qaddafi had ordered his generals not to attack civilians and that the Defense Information Agency found that he “was unlikely to risk world outrage by inflicting large civilian casualties.”

Not content merely to warn of mass slaughter, American officials also employed a time-honored tactic of selling war: making false allegations of rape. In April 2011, Susan Rice claimed that Qaddafi was giving his troops Viagra to encourage rape, and in June, when Congress was making noises about trying to halt the war, Clinton picked up this rhetorical line of attack.

Amnesty debunked the claim at the time. We now know its apparent source. Blumenthal emailed the Viagra allegation to Clinton in late March, stressing that it was unconfirmed. He recently testified that his reports on Libya came from Tyler Drumheller, a former CIA officer turned security consultant. Blumenthal’s emails — some of which were hacked and posted in 2013 — also reveal that Drumheller sought business with the new Libyan government.

The humanitarian case for war depended not just on the prospect of mass atrocities by Qaddafi but also on the existence of a superior alternative. Administration officials and others depicted the opposition as gloriously and uniformly progressive. When the United States recognized the Transitional National Council (TNC) as Libya’s governing authority in July 2011 — and gave it access to $30 billion — Clinton described it as “steadfast in its commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The TNC, far from a representative sample of the opposition, was a collection of expats, former Qaddafi loyalists, and other elites who rose to power with the apparent help of France. One of Blumenthal’s memos to Clinton asserts that France funded the nascent council in exchange for the promise of financial favors. French intelligence “expected the new government of Libya to favor French firms and national interests, particularly regarding the oil industry in Libya.”

Whatever its nature, the TNC was merely the figurehead atop a loose coalition that included vicious racists and other reactionaries. Indeed, it was immediately evident that the threat of mass atrocities came not from the government but from the opposition.

The mainstream press outlets didn’t ignore the threat of al-Qaeda, reporting that per capita Libya was the source of the most foreign fighters in Iraq and that hundreds of al-Qaeda members in Pakistan were heading home to fight. At the same time, though, the press dismissed Qaddafi’s warnings. “Most experts agree that Qaddafi is grossly exaggerating the al-Qaeda threat to discredit his opposition,” said the Christian Science Monitor.

Clinton went farther, suggesting that al-Qaeda allies had no role in the opposition. Asked about NATO commander’s reference to “flickers in the intelligence of potential” al-Qaeda involvement, Clinton said, “We do not have any specific information about specific individuals from any organization who are part of this.”

The Libyan government didn’t just allege an al-Qaeda presence in the opposition but compiled evidence in a report that, according to the Washington Times, a US intelligence asset sought to deliver to members of Congress. “There is a close link between al Qaeda, Jihadi organizations, and the opposition in Libya,” read the report.

Now that beheadings and car bombs are commonplace in Libya, it can’t be denied that the warning was valid, although no one could foresee the emergence of the Islamic State.

The moral sickness of the opposition cut even deeper and wider than the barbarism of al-Qaeda. Anti-black racism was endemic to it. In August 2011, brigades centered in Misrata forced all forty thousand Tawergha — who are mostly descendants of black slaves — to flee the city that bears their name.

“The forced displacement of roughly 40,000 people, arbitrary detentions, torture, and killings are widespread, systematic, and sufficiently organized to be crimes against humanity,” said Human Rights Watch in 2013, two years after its Washington director, Tom Malinowski, cheered the war and said democracy was “tantalizingly close.”

CIA operatives were working with the opposition from the beginning. It is impossible that American officials didn’t know about the pogroms against blacks, which began as soon as the insurgency did. In his review of Maximilian Forte’s essential Slouching Toward Sirte, Dan Glazenbook summarizes his findings:

50 sub-Saharan African migrants were burnt alive in Al-Bayda on the second day of the insurgency. An Amnesty International report from September 2011 made it clear that this was no isolated incident: “When al-Bayda, Benghazi, Derna, Misrata and other cities first fell under the control of the NTC in February, anti-Gaddafi forces carried out house raids, killing and other violent attacks” against sub-Saharan Africans and black Libyans, and “what we are seeing in western Libya is a very similar pattern to what we have seen in Benghazi and Misrata after those cities fell to the rebels” – arbitrary detention, torture and execution of black people.

To cover up and attempt to justify their racist violence, opposition figures claimed that blacks were mercenaries hired by Qaddafi. This, like so many of their claims, was a lie. And like so many of their lies, it was parroted by Hillary Clinton.

The opposition’s racism and bloodlust of course did not deter the US from arming it. The United States worked in various ways to funnel weapons to the opposition, and new information sheds light on this effort.

You may recall that there was a debate in the spring of 2011 over whether foreign powers could arm the rebels despite the UN embargo. On one side was Hillary Clinton, who claimed that Resolution 1973 placed a loophole in the embargo. On the other side was international law: Resolution 1973, in fact, urged enforcement of the embargo.

Nonetheless, the official position of the United States was, and is, that it didn’t arm the Libyan opposition. Not directly perhaps. Egypt sent weapons to the opposition with the knowledge of American officials, who “encouraged” allies Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to do the same. Maybe those US-approved shipments are what John McCain was referring to when he said “we” armed the Libyan “rebels.”

In 2012, the New York Times reported that al-Qaeda allies in Libya had gotten arms from Qatar. The story discussed the curious case of private arms dealer Marc Turi, who says his contacts in the US government encouraged him to ship arms to the opposition in Libya. In April 2011, Turi applied for a license to do just that. Shortly after, Clinton sent an email to aide Jake Sullivan saying, “The idea of using private security experts to arm the opposition should be considered.”

The State Department rejected his proposal, but he quickly reapplied, “this time stating only that he planned to ship arms worth more than $200 million to Qatar,” and received a license in May. “If you want to limit the exposure to the US government, what you simply do is outsource it to your allies,” Turi told Fox News.

As it turned out, Turi never shipped weapons to Libya via Qatar. Federal agents raided his home in August 2011, and he now faces charges that he violated the Arms Control Export Act by making false statements. Testifying in May before the grand jury investigating Turi, CIA officer David Manners said, “It was then, and remains now, my opinion that the United States did participate, directly or indirectly, in the supply of weapons to the Libyan Transitional National Council.”

Clinton’s intrepid GOP foes are trying to use the Turi case to tie her to the attack on US consulate in Benghazi. Her defenders are defending her. Lost is her role — and the role of the United States — in destroying a nation.

Clinton probably won’t be held to account during the presidential campaign. Bernie Sanders is focusing on domestic issues and, in any case, he was merely a soft opponent of the war, saying that he had “reservations” due to the financial cost. The one candidate apt to make the war an issue, Rand Paul, is unlikely to be the GOP’s nominee.

Nor is criticism forthcoming from liberal foreign policy pundits, who by and large not only supported the war but celebrated it as a grand success. Few, if any, have admitted they were wrong, so they’re not about to expose themselves by exposing Clinton.

But her record exists regardless of the attention it receives. And Libyans continue to suffer because of a war that she hoped would help her career.

After Tripoli fell to the opposition in August 2011, Blumenthal urged Clinton to make the most of the victory. “When Qaddafi himself is finally removed, you should of course make a public statement before the cameras . . . This is a very big moment historically and for you. History will tell your part in it. You are vindicated.”

Clinton forwarded the emailed to Sullivan and wrote: “Sid makes a good case for what I should say, but it’s premised on being said after Q goes, which will make it more dramatic. That’s my hesitancy, since I’m not sure how many chances I’ll get.”