Kerry in 2011: Military Intervention in Libya Not ‘Vital’ to U.S. Security Interests

By Patrick Goodenough | September 3, 2013 | 4:12 AM EDT

Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, a strong advocate of engagement with Syria, holds talks with President Bashar Assad in Damascus on November 8, 2010. (Photo: SANA)

( – One day before the U.N. Security Council in 2011 authorized military action against Libya, then-Sen. John Kerry conceded that acting against the Gaddafi regime was not a “vital national security interest,” but he argued strongly in favor of doing so, saying it would make a big difference to how Arabs view the United States.

“You have different layers of interest,” the then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said about intervening in the Libyan civil war.

“Is it a vital national security interest? No. Is it existential to us? No. But I got news for you: Will it make a difference in the eyes of people throughout the Arab world about how they view us and a lot of other folks? Yes, profoundly, in my judgment.”

As he builds the administration’s case now for a military strike against the Syrian regime following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, Secretary of State Kerry’s stance on the eve of the last instance of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East is worth recalling.

His suggestion that U.S. involvement in the removal of Gaddafi would “profoundly” affect Arabs’ views of the U.S. in a positive direction was not borne out by subsequent polling data.

Pew Global Attitudes Project polls have found that in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and the Palestinian territories, favorable views of the U.S. in fact dropped slightly over the period since the 2011 Libyan mission.

A GlobeScan/University of Maryland program on international policy attitudes this year found that the proportion of Egyptians who view U.S. influence in the world as “mostly positive” has dropped to 24 percent, from 37 percent a year earlier.

And a Gallup poll in mid-2012 – about six months after the overthrow of the 42-year-old regime – found majorities or pluralities in Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Mauritania, Tunisia, Yemen, Morocco and the Palestinian territories all opposed the NATO action in Libya.

Kerry made the remarks about Libya after giving a speech on U.S. policy towards the Middle East in the light of the so-called “Arab spring.” He was speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on March 16. A day later the Security Council approved a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” short of foreign occupation to protect Libyan civilians under threat.

Who are the rebels?

In response to another question, Kerry said he did not completely “get” concerns being aired at the time about the wisdom of aiding Libyan rebel groups without knowing too much about them.

(Elements of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and other jihadists were involved in the anti-Gaddafi fight, and earlier that month senior Libyan al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Yahya al-Libi released a video clip in which he claimed al-Qaeda had inspired the rebellion in Libya.)

Kerry noted that the U.S. had not known all the players in Eastern Europe before providing assistance and support during the uncertain days as the Soviet Union collapsed. Reaching back further in history, Kerry also invoked the French general who fought in George Washington’s army during the American War of Independence.

“We didn’t know who all the people were in Eastern Europe either [before supporting them],” he said. “We don’t always know who they all are. I mean, I wonder if you asked Lafayette the question, if he knew everybody over here when he helped us, what he’d say. I think that you have to kind of have a sense of the course of history and what they’re fighting for.”

Kerry went on to say that the U.S. did know “the principal players” in Libya, noting that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had met one of the opposition leaders in Paris shortly beforehand.

He acknowledged that the situation – knowing who the U.S. was dealing with in Libya – could change.

“Now, does it stay there? I can’t predict that,” he said. “Nobody can.”

Last September terrorists attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.

Many critics of Western involvement in the Syrian conflict point to the significant involvement of al-Qaeda and other jihadist radicals among the rebels groups fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.

Kerry and Assad

Kerry’s speech at the Carnegie Endowment in March 2011 was also noteworthy for what he said – and did not say – about Syria and Assad. One day earlier, on March 15, demonstrations in a number of Syrian cities had marked the start of the protest movement that eventually became the civil war.

As reported shortly afterwards, Kerry – who strongly supported the Obama administration’s decision to re-engage Damascus and had met with Assad at least six times, most recently the previous November – did not mention at all the need for reform in Syria during his speech, although he did refer to Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Lebanon.

Asked about Syria during the question-and-answer session afterwards, he voiced optimism about the relationship and about Assad.

“I have been a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to work for it and push it.”

“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Kerry continued. “And when I last went to – the last several trips to Syria – I asked President Assad to do certain things to build the relationship with the United States and sort of show the good faith that would help us to move the process forward.”

He mentioned some of the requests, such as the purchase of land for the U.S. Embassy in Damascus and the opening of an American cultural center, and said Assad had met each one.

“So my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

Several days later, Clinton raised eyebrows when she said – without naming them – that “many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he [Assad] is a reformer.”

On Friday, Kerry called Assad a “thug and murderer.” During two television talk shows on Sunday, he compared the Syrian leader to Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow