The Real Benghazi Scandal Everyone Is Missing

Benghazi as a campaign kickball distracts us from the fact that it was a tragic result of a foolish war, one which Secretary Clinton—now candidate for President of the United States—championed.

The conventional story of Hillary Clinton’s eleven hours of testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi is that she bested her Republican foes. They came off as hackish inquisitors rehashing old issues in a failed effort to produce a scandal or a gotcha video clip harmful to her presidential campaign. Poised by contrast, Clinton won on points, if only for endurance. Her camp will cite it as evidence of her presidential qualification: her persistence, competence and scrappiness.

That story is probably right, but Benghazi as a campaign kickball distracts us from the fact that it was a tragic result of a foolish war, one which Secretary Clinton championed. If a tenth of the scrutiny Congress devoted to Benghazi went to the administration’s case for bombing Libya in 2011, that case would collapse. The flaws in the case were clear then, and Libya’s postwar disintegration, of which Benghazi’s chaos was symptomatic, just makes them clearer. The real scandal is the U.S. war in Libya and Congress’ failure to exercise its war powers and interrogate its rationales.

Secretary of State Clinton, along with President Obama, made three major arguments for supporting Libya’s rebels in 2011. One was that a rebel victory over the Gaddafi government would make Libya a liberal democracy. Another was that by supporting Libya’s rebellion, the United States and other outside powers would show willingness to stand up for other rebels and Arab spring protests against Middle Eastern dictators. Convinced of U.S. resolve, those dictators would give ground to the democratic movements rather than crush them. The third argument was humanitarian: by aiding the rebels we would protect civilians, especially in Benghazi.

None of those claims made sense at the time, and they have aged poorly. Today Libya is illiberal and chaotic. Clashing militias rule. Though Clinton continued to brag about Libya’s democratic transition in Thursday’s hearing, its two competing national parliaments convey neither meaningful power nor protections to the “people” Secretary Clinton was so eager to aid. According to Human Rights Watch:

Human rights abuses are rampant in Libya, a country in crisis and divided under an internationally recognized government in the east, and a self-proclaimed one in Tripoli. Since the outbreak of serious fighting in 2014, warring factions were responsible for killings, unlawful detentions, looting, and burning civilian property in what amount to war crimes. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced. Unidentified assailants killed hundreds of activists, journalists, politicians, and members of the armed forces with impunity. Extremist militias summarily executed people and killed civilians in major attacks.

Libya’s postwar deterioration should not be a surprise. As scholars argued in 2011, Libya lacks the prerequisites that tend to produce liberal government, and military interventions in civil wars generally produce continued instability, not successful democratic transitions.

The notion that bombing on behalf of rebels would cause other tyrants to give way to popular movements is even less sensible. History suggests that resolve does not so easily travel, and tyrants like Bashar al-Assad do not see western intervention in Libya as precedents for their countries. But if they did take lessons from Libya, it was to crush dissent before it invites outside help and they wind up like Gaddafi—being brutally murdered on YouTube as the U.S. Secretary of State jokes: “We came; we saw; he died.”