Hillary and 'leading from behind'

US Department of State

Article Highlights

  • The outcome in Syria that some feared would be the result of US action may instead result from US inaction

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  • Refusing to give people means to defend themselves might force US to do much more later

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  • Does Hillary support "leading-from-behind" that undid some of Libyan achievement and prolonged Syria conflict?

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Four months after terrorists in Benghazi, Libya, killed four Americans—including the popular and effective Ambassador Chris Stevens—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will finally testify before Congress on Wednesday. The testimony should be an occasion to examine how the disaster was part of a larger failure in Libya and a still larger one in Syria that will haunt U.S. interests in the Middle East for decades.

Lawmakers will ask Mrs. Clinton why security in Benghazi was so lax on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and why the Obama administration claimed falsely that the terrorist attack was a response to an obscure and distasteful anti-Islamic video when available evidence made clear that the attack was a well-planned operation with likely connections to al Qaeda. For months, the danger in Benghazi had been growing. The evidence included attacks on the British ambassador, the United Nations special envoy to Libya, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the U.S. Consulate itself. Even in Tripoli, Libya's capital, Islamist militias had—in broad daylight and with bulldozers—demolished a mosque that they considered heretical.

How is it that the State Department had no plans for an emergency evacuation in September, even though 18 months earlier, at the start of the Libyan revolution, it had struggled to evacuate diplomats from Tripoli using a chartered Italian ferry? Why did the U.S. Africa Command have no dedicated forces available to respond to the emergency in Benghazi, even though it had conducted extensive combat operations in Libyan airspace just a year before?

According to Vice President Joe Biden, the White House was never warned about security concerns in Libya. "Those are things that are handled by security personnel at the State Department," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. Did the State Department think it unimportant to inform the president's staff? Did it consider asking the Pentagon to have forces in place to respond to an emergency?

But there is a larger question that has bearing on U.S. policy across the region, namely: In a country with a population that is generally friendly and even grateful to Americans, how does a moderate and well-intentioned government—elected in the country's first free elections—have no effective control over powerful extremist militias?

Mrs. Clinton deserves great credit for her leadership when Moammar Gadhafi's forces threatened to overrun Benghazi in early 2011. But she also deserves to be questioned about the subsequent U.S. decision to outsource to Qatar the task of arming and organizing the Libyan opposition. Now, even though Islamist extremists failed to get the votes in last summer's elections, they have the guns and the country's strongest military organizations (which also contribute to instability elsewhere in Africa).

The broader failure in Libya results from an approach to the Middle East that an unnamed Obama administration official called "leading from behind" in a moment of off-the-record candor in 2011. That approach is having even more damaging consequences now in Syria.

The U.S. failure to provide weapons, training or even medical support to the Syrian opposition is yielding the very consequences that U.S. officials claimed would flow from outside intervention. It has helped prolong the conflict, which has now left some 60,000 dead and some two million displaced. It has also enabled extremist fighters armed by fundamentalist Persian Gulf governments, and even elements directly linked to al Qaeda, to gain a growing and perhaps dominant role in the opposition. Thus when the U.S. recognized Syria's new opposition coalition last month, it also designated one of the important new militias, the Nusrah Front, as a terrorist organization.

Even moderate Syrian opposition groups greeted this U.S. designation with disdain, reflecting the irrelevance with which America is now regarded by many Syrians. Where the Syrian opposition started out openly hostile to Russia, China and Iran, the U.S. failure to offer anything except empty rhetoric has caused deep resentment among previously friendly Syrians.

U.S. inaction may in fact have produced a situation in which a post-Assad Syria will be intensely anti-American, perhaps even dominated by extremists. The outcome that some feared would be the result of American action may instead result from American inaction.

It is perfectly understandable why the Obama administration wants to do nothing that would lead to a repetition of the invasion of Iraq. But no one is arguing for any such thing. The administration seems not to remember that the first Bush administration's failure to protect Iraqi Shiites in 1991, when their uprising was crushed by Saddam Hussein, helped lead to a second war in Iraq 12 years later. Or that an international arms embargo kept the Bosnians defenseless for three years against the Serbs and led to American military intervention in 1995, including the stationing of tens of thousands of NATO peacekeepers in the Balkans.

Policy makers should never underestimate the risks of action in the face of any armed conflict, but neither should they underestimate the risks of inaction. Refusing to give people the means to defend themselves—especially when their interests are congruent with those of the U.S.—can end up forcing America to do much more later. It can also breed lasting resentment by the people we abandon.

Although the outcome in Syria won't be known for some time, it will weigh heavily in judgments of Mrs. Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. As she leaves office, the American people deserve to know whether she supports the leading-from-behind approach that has undone some of the Libyan achievement and dangerously prolonged the war in Syria. If it is the president's policy and not hers, now is the time to voice her objections. If it is her policy, too, then it is fair to ask her to defend it and to be held accountable for its consequences.

Mr. Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has served as deputy U.S. secretary of defense and U.S. ambassador to Indonesia.

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