Hillary Clinton’s Priorities in Libya

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Hillary Clinton landed in Tripoli on Tuesday morning on an unannounced visit, the first to Libya by a U.S. cabinet official since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Shifting from her regular State Department plane to a C-17 in Malta for security reasons, Clinton and her staff are taking the trip as a combination of victory lap, exercise in diplomatic triage and effort to boost international support for the struggling post-Gaddafi leadership.

In a best-case scenario touted by some officials at the State Department and the White House, Libya will emerge as a powerful counterpoint to Iraq: an example of prudent American leadership that advances our interests and defends our humanitarian ideals while bolstering our position on the international scene. But Clinton’s trip shows the Libya mission, complicated from the start, remains a risk and a challenge that requires smart management and constant attention to approach that optimistic vision.

Clinton announced an additional $11 million in U.S. aid to the transitional government in Tripoli, bringing the total to $135 million since the uprising began. She is also pushing the leadership to corral security forces into a unified structure, to get control of the thousands of shoulder-launched missiles that have gone missing during the fighting, and to bolster protections for remaining chemical weapons stockpiles. As a key figure in the American decision to intervene in Libya, Clinton is also in a position to build high-level relations that can pay off in oil and other economic ties in coming years.

But Libya remains volatile. Gaddafi’s forces launched a counterattack in Sirt on Tuesday, and the extra security measures surrounding Clinton’s trip underscore the worries American officials have about surface to air missiles, some of which have already made it as far as the Egyptian border. And while a stable, wealthy pro-Western regime in Libya would be a net benefit compared to the intermittently hostile, backward and unstable regime of Gaddafi, a chaotic Libya, awash in weapons with corrupt leaders, would be a net loss for U.S. interests.

Clinton is fairly clear-eyed about the Libya intervention. Though realists criticize the mission, she opposed it initially because early no-fly-zone plans would not have delivered security for the civilian protesters Gaddafi was threatening. She then supported intervention once a sufficiently robust plan was presented, and the backing from Arab neighbors allowed her to secure support at the U.N. Security Council. Whether the messy situation on the ground can be managed into a positive outcome is not a settled question.