(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. military intervention in Libya in 2011 was an example of “smart power at its best,” Hillary Clinton said during Tuesday night’s CNN Democratic presidential debate, adding that she thought “President Obama made the right decision at the time.”
Debate moderator Anderson Cooper noted that former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, also running for the Democratic nomination, had said on the campaign trial he would not have used military force in Libya, and that the subsequent terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi had been inevitable.
Clinton was secretary of state when the U.S. participated in a NATO campaign of airstrikes, initially designed to save Libyan civilians under attack from the regime. Muammar Gaddafi was killed by rebel militiamen that October and Libya spiraled into chaos. A Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi cost the lives of lives of the U.S. ambassador, a foreign service officer and two Navy Seals.
“Well, let’s remember what was going on,” Clinton said in response to the criticism. “We had a murderous dictator, Gaddafi, who had American blood on his hands, as I’m sure you remember, threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people.
“We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words. And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, ‘We want you to help us deal with Gaddafi.’”
“Our response – which I think was smart power at its best – is that the United States will not lead this,” Clinton continued. “We will provide essential, unique capabilities that we have, but the Europeans and the Arabs had to be first over the line. We did not put one single American soldier on the ground in Libya.”
“But American citizens did lose their lives in Benghazi,” interjected Cooper.
“I’ll get to that,” Clinton said. “But I think it’s important, since I understand Senator Webb’s very strong feelings about this, to explain where we were then and to point out that I think President Obama made the right decision at the time.”
Clinton went on to recall that Libyans had been able to hold a free election for the first time in half a century, and had “voted for moderates.”
She conceded that “turmoil” followed, and then, alluding to the Benghazi attack, said, “Unless you believe the United States should not send diplomats to any place that is dangerous, which I do not, then when we send them forth, there is always the potential for danger and risk.”
Clinton is scheduled to testify before House Select Committee on Benghazi for the first time on October 22.
Invited to respond to her defense of the administration’s Libya policy, Webb did not back down from his opposition to the intervention.
“We had no treaties at risk,” he said. “We had no Americans at risk. There was no threat of attack or imminent attack.”
Webb also said the president could have sought congressional authority to use military force – something he said he had called for repeatedly on the Senate floor.
The U.S. intervention had not been wise, he said.
“And if people think it was a wise thing to do, try to get to the Tripoli airport today,” Webb added. “You can’t do it.”
‘Leading from behind’
After the Arab League called for a no-fly zone over Libya in early 2011 the U.S. government backed a European-led initiative that led on March 17 to the vote for a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” short of foreign occupation to protect civilians under threat from the regime.
U.S., British and French forces launched airstrikes on March 19, military command of the operation was taken over by NATO on March 24, and at the beginning of April the U.S. moved to a support role.
Despite Clinton’s claim Tuesday that the administration had insisted that “the Europeans and the Arabs had to be first over the line” when it came to intervening in Libya, the Arab contribution to the mission was largely symbolic.
In an interview with the New Yorker in the spring of 2011, one anonymous Obama adviser memorably labeled the president’s Libya strategy “leading from behind.”