Bob Gates is wrong about Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary and Chelsea Clinton to host series based on their book 'Gutsy Women' Democrats see spike in turnout among Asian American, Pacific Islander voters Biden officially announces ex-Obama official Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE and Libya. When a celebrated wise man as accomplished as Gates is simplistic and revisionist about an issue like Libya, it hurts the next President — whoever that is — who will face a multitude of tough decisions among bad options.  

Gates accuses Clinton of being the “senior-most advocate for using the U.S. military to bring ill-fated regime change in Libya” who “failed to anticipate the chaos that would follow — the same failure … hung around the neck of the Bush 43 administration in post-Saddam Iraq.”


Here’s what’s wrong with Gates’ revisionism: the United States and our closest allies didn’t lead a multilateral coalition in Libya for the purpose of regime change. We didn’t wake up one day with an ideological whim to remove the man Ronald Reagan called “the mad dog of the Middle East.” Motivations matter.

In fact, in the years before the 2011 intervention, the world had grudgingly found accommodations to work with Gadhafi because we thought he’d be there for the long haul.

That was turned on its head in 2011 — with little warning. The Arab Awakening kicked into motion a collision course: Libya was roiled by civil war, and Gadhafi pledged to brutally murder his own people, to go door to door with “no mercy and no pity.”

The world’s choice was: do nothing, or intervene — and that choice had to be made right away.

The choice was between the chaos of civil war with potential genocide, or the chance to save thousands of lives and hope that either Gadhafi would negotiate, or that a new government could bring unity.

There was never a magical option to return to the relative calm of 2010.

These are the imperfect decisions that presidents face.  

Gates draws a false equivalency between Libya and the second Gulf War. He forgets that while Saddam Hussein was a slow-boil global dilemma for years before an Administration made unilateral invasion an ideological misadventure, Gadhafi’s promise to butcher thousands was an imminent crisis. Rather than act essentially alone, as we did in Iraq in 2003, the Administration built a broad multilateral coalition backed by the UN, the EU, NATO and the Arab League.

If anything, the Libya intervention looked a lot more like our actions in Iraq under a very different President George H.W. Bush in 1991. The mission was limited, the coalition was broad, and we refused to be tempted into quagmire.  

What I wish Secretary Gates had offered was his own blueprint for Libya. If his answer was to do nothing while Gadhafi followed through on his pledge to slaughter the innocent, he should offer it — but that’s well beyond the most steely eyed case for realism I’ve ever seen publicly argued. More realistically, those scenarios sound an awful lot like Rwanda in the 1990’s or Syria today — tragedies where the world did too little, not too much.

I’m glad the Obama Administration decided that wasn’t acceptable in Libya.

But if he disagrees, I wish a statesman like Gates would help the public understand the complexity of the choices policy makers faced then. The real life imperfect situations that often define American foreign policy in a messy world: the clock always ticking, navigating the best of bad options.

Gates knows how unpredictable it can all be: he was a star on the Bush 41 team that had the wisdom not to boot Saddam Hussein from power, but still called for Iraqis to rise up and dethrone the dictator. What if the oppositionists had succeeded? It’s not hard to imagine that Iraq as early as 1991 could’ve looked a lot like Libya in 2016, and that wouldn’t have changed the fact that George Herbert Walker Bush was right to push Hussein out of Kuwait.

Foreign policy isn’t an academic exercise. It is minute by minute judgments and even the right judgments can set in motion the wrong unintended consequences. Gates knows this.

He also knows that the United States still has a throbbing post-Iraq hang-over. I ran into it personally as Chief of Staff at the State Department, when I saw Congress unwilling to authorize even surgical airstrikes to hold Bashir Assad accountable for gassing innocent kids outside Damascus. I wondered why.

There was no memory of Bosnia or Kosovo — places where the U.S. successfully intervened to stop mass casualties. Only 16% of Senators had been in office during Bosnia and Kosovo, only 37 percent present for the Iraq War vote. Retirements and wave elections created a Congress that knew only long, boots on the ground, trillion dollar wars they’d been elected to avoid.

That’s why Gates is creating a false equivalence between Libya and Iraq is a problem — because his words have enormous weight in a Washington with so little institutional memory.

Whoever is America’s next President will face complicated challenges and choices among unappealing options, just like Libya. They should be able to count on seasoned veteran policymakers like Robert Gates to explain complexity — not to offer false hindsight.  

David Wade is the former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State John Kerry. He is currently a consultant specializing in providing global corporations and organizations strategic advice, crisis communications, political intelligence gathering, and federal and legislative strategy.


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