Commentary Magazine


Topic: Muammar Gaddafi

Obama’s Syria Shift

President Obama’s decision to provide $500 million to train and equip the Syrian opposition, like his decision to send 300 Special Operations soldiers to Iraq, can best be understood as a halting half-step away from his preferred policy on non-involvement in the Middle East.

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President Obama’s decision to provide $500 million to train and equip the Syrian opposition, like his decision to send 300 Special Operations soldiers to Iraq, can best be understood as a halting half-step away from his preferred policy on non-involvement in the Middle East.

If only he had acted sooner. The Syrian civil war began in March 2011. At one time it looked as if Bashar Assad would fall as quickly and easily as Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak. Obama was so certain of this that in August 2011 he declared, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

That time quickly passed, however, because Obama refused to do much to bring Assad down, treating his demise as a historical inevitability. Not even when Assad brazenly violated Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons did the U.S. ramp up its efforts to topple him.

U.S. inaction, which held back American allies as well, allowed Assad to recover from his early stumbles. With the aid of the Iranian Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah, he launched a murderous counterattack that resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 Syrians and that produced a stalemate which endures to this day. Out of this hellish civil war have arisen extremists on both sides–the Quds Force/Hezbollah on the pro-government side and the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on the rebel side. The Free Syrian Army, the military arm of the more moderate nationalist opposition, has gotten weaker and weaker. In fact it’s not clear if they have sufficient strength left to benefit from Obama’s delayed offer of aid.

Meanwhile the extremists have gotten so strong that ISIS has surged across the border to take most of the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, from Fallujah and Al Qaim in the west to Mosul in the north.

At this point it is far from clear that extra U.S. aid and training will be sufficient to turn the tide. American airpower and raids by the US Special Operations Command seem to be called for as well before the divisions of Iraq and Syria harden into the permanent establishment of Shiite and Sunni terrorist states. But that would require an even greater acknowledgement on Obama’s part that the “tide of war” is not “receding” and that the U.S. does not have the luxury of “pivoting” away from the Middle East. The best that can be said for his small, half-hearted moves in Syria and Iraq are that they may be the prelude to a wider reconsideration of his disastrous policy in the Middle East.

Or at least so we can hope. Obviously no one wants to get more deeply enmeshed in the region’s violent politics, but the only thing worse than American involvement, we are now learning, is American non-involvement.

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Unsecured Libyan Weapons Went to Boko Haram

Add another drop of tragedy to the story of America’s reluctant, no-boots-on-the-ground operation in Libya in 2011: Weapons that were never secured after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster made their way to Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist organization now holding hundreds of Nigerian girls. Last May, Boko Haram staged an attack in the town of Bama, killing 55 innocents and freeing 100 prisoners. That month Reuters ran a story by Tim Cocks headlined “Nigeria’s Islamists staging bolder, deadlier comeback.” It explained:

The Bama attack showed their [Boko Haram’s] substantial firepower, including machine guns, large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, a sign the weapons flood from the Libyan war that helped rebels seize parts of Mali last year has reached Nigeria, officials say.

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Add another drop of tragedy to the story of America’s reluctant, no-boots-on-the-ground operation in Libya in 2011: Weapons that were never secured after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster made their way to Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist organization now holding hundreds of Nigerian girls. Last May, Boko Haram staged an attack in the town of Bama, killing 55 innocents and freeing 100 prisoners. That month Reuters ran a story by Tim Cocks headlined “Nigeria’s Islamists staging bolder, deadlier comeback.” It explained:

The Bama attack showed their [Boko Haram’s] substantial firepower, including machine guns, large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, a sign the weapons flood from the Libyan war that helped rebels seize parts of Mali last year has reached Nigeria, officials say.

Let this be a miserable lesson in the dangers of foreign-policy ambivalence. The Obama administration was dragged kicking and screaming into Libya and refused to take the necessary steps to secure the regime’s weapons after Gaddafi was gone. This “light footprint” approach was praised by many as a low-risk “new model” for American military action. But in reality it was just world-policing on the cheap. The results speak for themselves. We can either fight terrorism or we can watch it advance and offer our remorse after the fact.

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When American Interests Become Impossible to Ignore

The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

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The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

FBI Director James B. Comey said Friday that the problem of Americans traveling to Syria to fight in the civil war there has worsened in recent months and remains a major concern to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters at FBI headquarters, Comey said the FBI is worried that the Americans who have joined extremist groups allied with al-Qaeda in Syria will return to the United States to carry out terrorist attacks.

“All of us with a memory of the ’80s and ’90s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s to Sept. 11,” Comey said. “We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse in a couple of respects. Far more people going there. Far easier to travel to and back from. So, there’s going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point and we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11.”

Comey declined to give a precise figure for Americans believed to be involved in the Syrian struggle but said the numbers are “getting worse.”

Passport-holding American jihadists are certainly a threat. Now, in fairness to noninterventionists, you can still identify this as a threat and believe that it’s not one we can or should prevent through intervention. But the idea that the civil war in Syria doesn’t have global implications and isn’t creating a burgeoning threat to U.S. interests or security is not a plausible argument.

It’s also not so easy to take each conflict in a vacuum. Some realists and liberal interventionists were hailing the modest intervention in Libya to decapitate the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. But “leading from behind” left behind an anarchic nightmare that resulted in a deadly attack on the American mission, the flow of arms to Mali, and now jihadists to Syria. Eli Lake reports that Libya has become a “Scumbag Woodstock” according to intelligence officials: “The country has attracted that star-studded roster of notorious terrorists and fanatics seeking to wage war on the West.”

Lake writes that officials don’t consider the situation in Libya to be as much of a terrorist threat as Syria, “But Libya is nonetheless intricately involved in funneling fighters into Syria, and its lawless regions provide an ideal haven for al Qaeda affiliates and fellow travelers.” Those who believe this was inevitable are underestimating American capabilities, but that is still miles ahead of the “it’s none of our business” chorus, who look positively ridiculous at this point.

Aside from security threats, there’s the not-inconsiderable matter of global health. As Bloomberg reports, the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere are enabling polio to make a comeback, and spread:

The spread of polio to countries previously considered free of the crippling disease is a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said, as the virus once driven to the brink of extinction mounts a comeback. …

The disease’s spread, if unchecked, “could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious, vaccine-preventable diseases,” Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration, told reporters in Geneva today. “The consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile states which have severely compromised routine immunization services.”

To their credit, humanitarian interventionists argued from the outset that the West had an obligation to stop the slaughter. And as is now clear for all to see, those who argued we had an interest in stopping the slaughter were right too.

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Libya’s Lesson for Syria

Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

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Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

Libyan officials also surprised Western inspectors by announcing the discovery in November 2011 and February 2012 of two hidden caches of mustard, or nearly two tons, that had not been declared by Colonel Qaddafi’s government. That brought the total declared amount of chemical to 26.3 tons.

Unlike the majority of Libya’s mustard agents, which were stored in large, bulky containers, the new caches were already armed and loaded into 517 artillery shells, 45 plastic sleeves for rocket launchings and eight 500-pound bombs.

Thankfully those final two tons of chemical weapons, already armed and ready for use, have been eradicated–but only, one assumes, because of a change of regime in Tripoli. Does anyone think that Gaddafi would have voluntarily turned over the remnants of his stockpile if he were still alive and in office? And how confident can anyone be that Western intelligence agencies would have found these hidden weapons on their own?

The answer says much about how much faith you have in arms-control agreements that have recently been negotiated with Syria and Iran–in the former case, to eradicate its chemical weapons, in the latter case to slow down its nuclear program. Already Syria has missed agreed-upon deadlines and has gotten rid of only 4 percent of its arsenal. Iranian compliance or noncompliance is hard to judge, but the example of Libya should be a cautionary tale about the danger of doing deals with dictators.

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Libyan Training Mission Long Overdue

I was gobsmacked to read this New York Times report: “The United States military is considering a mission to train Libyan security personnel with the goal of creating a force of 5,000 to 7,000 conventional soldiers and a separate, smaller unit for specialized counterterrorism missions, according to the top officer at the United States Special Operations Command.”

Why was I startled? Not because I think such a mission is a bad idea but precisely because it is such a good idea that is so long overdue. It’s been more than two years since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and a pro-Western government installed in his place. It is stunning that the U.S. still has done so little to train Libyan security forces capable of keeping order amid the violence and instability created by militias that continue to run amok. Just look at the latest news from that North African nation.

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I was gobsmacked to read this New York Times report: “The United States military is considering a mission to train Libyan security personnel with the goal of creating a force of 5,000 to 7,000 conventional soldiers and a separate, smaller unit for specialized counterterrorism missions, according to the top officer at the United States Special Operations Command.”

Why was I startled? Not because I think such a mission is a bad idea but precisely because it is such a good idea that is so long overdue. It’s been more than two years since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and a pro-Western government installed in his place. It is stunning that the U.S. still has done so little to train Libyan security forces capable of keeping order amid the violence and instability created by militias that continue to run amok. Just look at the latest news from that North African nation.

Item No. 1: “The deputy chief of Libya’s intelligence service was abducted from the parking lot of the airport in Tripoli on Sunday afternoon as a standoff between militias and a general strike against militia rule virtually shut down the city.”

Item No. 2: “At least 40 people were killed Friday in the deadliest violence in Libya’s capital since the end of the bloody 2011 revolution that ousted Moammar Gaddafi, state media reported. Nearly 400 others were injured, the Associated Press reported Saturday, citing Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani.”

And that’s just what is in the news today. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. This ongoing strife is cause for concern not just for Libyans but for Americans–a fact brought home by the murder of our ambassador in Benghazi more than a year ago which continues to go unpunished. Al-Qaeda and its ilk are taking advantage of this chaos to gain a foothold in a nation that otherwise should be oriented firmly toward the West.

It is simply shameful that the Obama administration, which helped to topple Gaddafi, has done so little to stabilize Libya in the last two years. The initiative to train security forces should have been launched in 2011–and yet it still has not passed beyond the discussion stage. It’s not as if Obama hasn’t seen what happens when the U.S. allows a power vacuum to develop after a dictator’s downfall. Yet for some bizarre reason he appears intent on duplicating in Libya the errors that his predecessor made in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Will the Pottery Barn Rule Save Assad?

The same vague aloofness that has served Barack Obama well at various points in his political career does not make Jay Carney’s job any easier. The White House press secretary must field questions from the media to explain the president’s position on a host of issues almost daily. When the administration’s policy is hazy, secretive, or to be determined, as is often the case, Carney stammers through his press briefing with a defeated, resigned series of non-answers.

Such is the case with the apparently imminent military attack on Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. After the West could no longer ignore the use of chemical weapons, the administration sent Secretary of State John Kerry out yesterday to make a statement that danced around the subject of a military response. He then took no questions and left. But the message came through clearly enough that it is now taken for granted that action will be taken.

Carney naturally took questions on the subject today, and when pressed for specifics, he gave an answer that became the focus of several news agencies’ write-ups of the briefing: “It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change.” The goal of the (presumed) strikes will not be to take out Bashar al-Assad.

The follow-up question, which elicited no further explanation, was: Why not? To elaborate: it is the opinion of the government of the United States that Assad should no longer be in control of the country, and the U.S. may now strike at Assad’s regime–but doesn’t want to depose him. That may sound incongruous, but the strange truth is that the president most likely does not want to take out Assad–and it’s not because Obama doesn’t actually want Assad out.

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The same vague aloofness that has served Barack Obama well at various points in his political career does not make Jay Carney’s job any easier. The White House press secretary must field questions from the media to explain the president’s position on a host of issues almost daily. When the administration’s policy is hazy, secretive, or to be determined, as is often the case, Carney stammers through his press briefing with a defeated, resigned series of non-answers.

Such is the case with the apparently imminent military attack on Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. After the West could no longer ignore the use of chemical weapons, the administration sent Secretary of State John Kerry out yesterday to make a statement that danced around the subject of a military response. He then took no questions and left. But the message came through clearly enough that it is now taken for granted that action will be taken.

Carney naturally took questions on the subject today, and when pressed for specifics, he gave an answer that became the focus of several news agencies’ write-ups of the briefing: “It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change.” The goal of the (presumed) strikes will not be to take out Bashar al-Assad.

The follow-up question, which elicited no further explanation, was: Why not? To elaborate: it is the opinion of the government of the United States that Assad should no longer be in control of the country, and the U.S. may now strike at Assad’s regime–but doesn’t want to depose him. That may sound incongruous, but the strange truth is that the president most likely does not want to take out Assad–and it’s not because Obama doesn’t actually want Assad out.

The answer to that question has a lot to do with an interesting debate among commentators on the left about the lessons and legacy of the Iraq war. Matt Yglesias argued that a humanitarian intervention should be done through explicitly humanitarian (that is, non-military) means. Jonathan Chait responded that the left would do well to stop assuming every military intervention is Iraq all over again–what about the first Gulf war or the Balkans?

Yglesias questions the idea that the Libyan intervention succeeded, and Chait disagrees. But it’s Chait’s description of Libyan success that helps explain why President Obama may not want to be responsible for ending Assad’s rule directly. Here’s Chait:

The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against. It’s telling that, rather than arguing that the overall costs exceeded the benefits, opponents are resorting to listing any bad things that have happened since.

Chait isn’t arguing that the “bad things that have happened since” didn’t actually happen or aren’t really bad. He’s saying the mission had nothing to do with preventing the descent into violent anarchy and the destabilizing spread of Islamist violence that followed the intervention. Gaddafi’s dead. Mission accomplished.

But it’s not nearly so easy for a president to make that case. It can be simultaneously true that the narrowly defined mission in Libya succeeded and that what followed was disastrous. The reason it elicits comparisons to Iraq is because of Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule” regarding foreign intervention: “You break it, you own it.”

Western military action in Libya decapitated the Gaddafi regime, raising the specter of the Pottery Barn rule. It’s true that the administration made no promises to stay and nation-build there. But President Obama learned with the fatal attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi that he could not so easily walk away from Libya by simply saying that he held up his end of the bargain.

The Pottery Barn rule is why Iraq looms over the various humanitarian disasters created by the Arab Spring, tempting American intervention. And the “bad things that have happened since” Gaddafi’s toppling are why Libya is being raised as a cautionary tale for intervention in Syria. If Obama’s directed action takes out Assad, and that leaves a chaotic vacuum that results in more death, destruction, and the suffering of innocents, it won’t be so simple to respond to the ensuing outcry with a protestation that all he promised to do was send a message.

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NATO Libya Follow-up Long Overdue

The Wall Street Journal has a rather startling report today about Libya: NATO is considering sending a training mission there to improve the quality of Libya’s security forces. The need for such a mission is obvious: not only is Libya at the mercy of various militias but it is so ungoverned that its distant deserts in the southwest have become a refuge for al-Qaeda fighters fleeing the French offensive in Mali. So why is this report so startling? Because the need for such a step is so long overdue.

Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in October 2011 by Libyan rebels assisted by NATO airpower. Many of us were warning even before Gaddafi fell that there would be a need for international help to reestablish lawful authority after the revolution’s success. Nearly a year and eight months have passed since then, and the need for outside security assistance has become all the more clear and urgent. The murder of the U.S. ambassador and other Americans in Benghazi on September 11 of last year should have made that evident. Yet the Obama administration has not stepped in to fill the need. Neither have our allies. The result: yet another ungoverned space where al-Qaeda militants can operate.

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The Wall Street Journal has a rather startling report today about Libya: NATO is considering sending a training mission there to improve the quality of Libya’s security forces. The need for such a mission is obvious: not only is Libya at the mercy of various militias but it is so ungoverned that its distant deserts in the southwest have become a refuge for al-Qaeda fighters fleeing the French offensive in Mali. So why is this report so startling? Because the need for such a step is so long overdue.

Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in October 2011 by Libyan rebels assisted by NATO airpower. Many of us were warning even before Gaddafi fell that there would be a need for international help to reestablish lawful authority after the revolution’s success. Nearly a year and eight months have passed since then, and the need for outside security assistance has become all the more clear and urgent. The murder of the U.S. ambassador and other Americans in Benghazi on September 11 of last year should have made that evident. Yet the Obama administration has not stepped in to fill the need. Neither have our allies. The result: yet another ungoverned space where al-Qaeda militants can operate.

This is a tragedy that was clearly foreseen and still ongoing, yet the very crew that came to office criticizing President Bush for lack of preparation after Saddam Hussein’s downfall has been blithely repeating the same mistake in Libya. And no one seems to be talking about it. Instead, all of the discussion about Libya is over the “talking points” issued after the September 11 attack by the administration.

While there is legitimate cause for investigation into the administration’s response to the attack which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, the far more urgent and important issue is the fate of Libya, which remains up for grabs. Yet both Democrats and Republicans seem to be so opposed to any hint of “nation building” that they instead appear to be content to watch Libya’s continuing collapse into chaos.

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Obama’s Libya Policy Is a Disaster–and Not Just in Benghazi

Part of the reason Senate foreign policy leaders–such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and newcomer Kelly Ayotte, among others–have focused so much attention on Susan Rice in the last few weeks is that it is the first time they have been able to keep the press focused on the story and get answers to the many outstanding questions about the Benghazi attack and its aftermath. On that note, the New York Times has a welcome story today widening the scope. The talking points that Rice is getting grilled over are only part of a larger story that needs telling. But moving this discussion away from the talking points probably won’t make it any easier on the White House.

The death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi was a symptom of a larger problem with the administration’s attitude toward the intervention. “Leading from behind” in Libya succeeded in killing Muammar Gaddafi, but the rush to the exits left a lawless country behind. And that condition persists to this day, and shines a light on the myth vs. the reality of President Obama’s strategy in the North African nation. In the third and final presidential debate with Mitt Romney, Obama touted Libya as a success because he seemed to believe that cutting off the head of the snake—Gaddafi—would subdue the unrest in Gaddafi’s wake. When asked about the Benghazi debacle and his larger Libya policy, the president said:

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Part of the reason Senate foreign policy leaders–such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and newcomer Kelly Ayotte, among others–have focused so much attention on Susan Rice in the last few weeks is that it is the first time they have been able to keep the press focused on the story and get answers to the many outstanding questions about the Benghazi attack and its aftermath. On that note, the New York Times has a welcome story today widening the scope. The talking points that Rice is getting grilled over are only part of a larger story that needs telling. But moving this discussion away from the talking points probably won’t make it any easier on the White House.

The death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi was a symptom of a larger problem with the administration’s attitude toward the intervention. “Leading from behind” in Libya succeeded in killing Muammar Gaddafi, but the rush to the exits left a lawless country behind. And that condition persists to this day, and shines a light on the myth vs. the reality of President Obama’s strategy in the North African nation. In the third and final presidential debate with Mitt Romney, Obama touted Libya as a success because he seemed to believe that cutting off the head of the snake—Gaddafi—would subdue the unrest in Gaddafi’s wake. When asked about the Benghazi debacle and his larger Libya policy, the president said:

But I think it’s important to step back and think about what happened in Libya. Now, keep in mind that I and Americans took leadership in organizing an international coalition that made sure that we were able to — without putting troops on the ground, at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq — liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years, got rid of a despot who had killed Americans.

And as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying, America’s our friend. We stand with them. Now that represents the opportunity we have to take advantage of.

Later on in the debate, the discussion turned to Syria, and Romney used the subject as an opportunity to criticize Obama’s lack of leadership on the world stage. Obama changed the subject back to Libya, and gave a very revealing answer:

But you know, going back to Libya, because this is an example of — of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. And to the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized. But when it came time to making sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.

Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. That — Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job.

To Obama, “finishing the job” meant getting rid of Gaddafi. That was, no doubt, part of the job, but to Obama that was it. Once we got rid of Gaddafi, the mission was over. This is in full concert with the president’s hearty embrace of targeted assassination; it is a definable mission that requires no follow-up.

But picking off terrorists in Yemen or Pakistan or Afghanistan is much different than taking out a head of state. And we are seeing the full consequence of this approach today. Elsewhere in today’s paper, the Times reports that Libya seems frozen in anarchist chaos:

“It is impossible for members of a brigade to arrest another,” said Wanis al-Sharif, the top Interior Ministry official in eastern Libya. “And it would be impossible that I give the order to arrest someone in a militia. Impossible.”

The violence was thrown into sharp relief after the September attack on the United States intelligence and diplomatic villas. Libyan and American officials accused militants associated with Libya’s ubiquitous militias, and specifically, members of Ansar al-Shariah.

“The killing of the ambassador brought back the true reality of this insecure state,” said Ali Tarhouni, a former Libyan finance minister who leads a new political party. “It was a major setback, to this city and its psyche.”

Justice itself is a dangerous notion here and throughout Libya, where a feeble government lacks the power to protect citizens or to confront criminal suspects. It barely has the means to arm its police force, let alone rein in or integrate the militias or confront former rebel fighters suspected of killings.

It seems to me this is a discussion McCain and the others would like to have. As for the administration, widening the discussion may take the heat off of Rice, but it’s doubtful it would make the issue any more comfortable for the White House.

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