Libyan National Security Adviser Mutassim Gadhafi with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department in 2009. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
During Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton forcefully defended her backing of the 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya that led to the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi. “We had a murderous dictator, Gadhafi, who had American blood on his hands,” she said, adding that he was “threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people. … And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, ‘We want you to help us deal with Gadhafi.’”
But Clinton’s response obscures a largely forgotten moment in U.S. diplomacy: a period less than two years earlier when she and the Obama administration were actively cozying up to the “murderous” Gadhafi. “I am very pleased to welcome Minister Gadhafi here to the State Department,” she said, warmly greeting Mutassim Gadhafi, the Libyan dictator’s son and national security adviser, at the State Department in April, 2009. “We deeply value the relationship between the United States and Libya.” (You can watch it here.)
To be sure, the rapprochement with Gadhafi began under President George W. Bush in 2003 when the Libyan dictator agreed to give up his arsenal of chemical weapons — and later to compensate the families of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 189 Americans and for which a former Libyan intelligence agent was convicted by a Scottish court. But the process accelerated in the early days of Clinton’s tenure at the State Department: Clinton named as her first international energy envoy David Goldwyn, who formerly served as executive director of the U.S.-Libya Business Association, an oil-industry-funded group that was actively lobbying for new U.S. business deals with Gadhafi’s government. In July 2009, Clinton dispatched her assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, to Tripoli, where he met with Musa Kusa, Gadhafi’s foreign minister, and expressed the U.S. “desire to press the relationship forward” with new dialogues on trade, investment and political-military affairs. Feltman even floated the possibility of a meeting between Obama and Gadhafi at the United Nations. (They did meet that month, and shake hands, at a G-8 summit in Italy.)
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi with President Obama during a G-8 summit in July 2009. (Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
These contacts outraged human rights advocates and members of the Pan Am Flight 103 family groups. “It makes me sick to think that my government has been complicit in keeping Gadhafi in power,” Stephanie Bernstein, whose husband, Michael Bernstein, a Justice Department lawyer, was killed in the Pan Am bombing, said in 2011.
U.S. policy — and Clinton’s views — did change in February 2011, when Arab Spring protests erupted in Libya, raising fears of bloody retaliation by Gadhafi’s security forces. Clinton became a forceful supporter of U.S. military intervention — the “swing vote,” then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates later wrote — to support European airstrikes against Gadhafi’s regime, leading to his overthrow that summer. In October, he and his son Mutassim were captured and killed.
In the aftermath of Gadhafi’s overthrow, Clinton’s aides celebrated her role in Libya. “It shows [Secretary Clinton’s] leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish,” her top foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, wrote to her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, in an Aug. 22, 2011, email that touted Clinton’s role in “tightening the noose around Qadhafi [sic] and his regime.”
But that was before Libya descended into chaos — and the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens (a subject that will be front and center when Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi). And Sullivan’s email left out the real “start” of Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, when she and other U.S. officials were embracing Gadhafi’s regime, not “tightening the noose.”