Washington (CNN)It should be an easy — if simplistic — attack line for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee: Hillary Clinton’s support for military intervention in Libya left the country in chaos.
But it’s not so straightforward for Donald Trump, who has reversed himself twice on the Obama administration’s Libya strategy. And in the process, Trump is undermining what could be a powerful rhetorical weapon at a time when the 2016 campaign is dominated by his controversial statements on race that have been roundly criticized — even by fellow Republicans.
Trump’s latest Libya flip came on Sunday when he told CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that he would have favored a “surgical shot” to kill Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi.
But at a Republican presidential debate in February, Trump said the dictator should have been left in power, arguing that, “We would be so much better off if Gaddafi would be in charge right now.”
It was another 180-degree swivel from his statement in a 2011 video blog post in which he urged the Obama administration to “knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically.”
That is roughly what the Obama administration then did in backing the Libyan dictator’s ouster in March 2011, when the U.S. lead a NATO- and UN-backed airstrike campaign to protect Libyan civilians threatened with widespread violence at the hand of their leader.
In basically endorsing the Obama administration’s approach, Trump could neutralize his own party’s attempts to use Clinton’s foreign policy experience against her.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed the strategy clearly on ABC’s “This Week” on June 5, telling host George Stephanopoulos that Clinton’s “service as secretary of state has made her incredibly vulnerable.”
He pointed to the withdrawal from Iraq, support for Syria’s moderate opposition and Libya — a favorite Republican foreign policy cudgel against Clinton and the Obama administration ever since the 2011 action.
As secretary of state, Clinton pushed hard for military intervention when the Libyan leader threatened thousands of his own citizens. Critics have pointed to the chaotic aftermath as evidence of a lack of planning, foresight and judgment.
Trump himself made that argument May 25 at a rally in California, arguing that Clinton’s “horribly bad judgment” should disqualify her from the presidency.
“Look at what she did with Libya, which was a total catastrophe,” he said.
After the UN gave its blessing to a military intervention in Libya, the U.S. and a coalition of allies established a no-fly zone over the North African country in March 2011 and began bombing government troops. Qaddafi was booted from his presidential palace, went into hiding and was killed by his own people in brutal fashion that October.
Libya has spiraled downward ever since, its difficulties exacerbated by falling prices for oil — the vast source of its revenue. ISIS has set up bases in the country, which is slightly larger than the state of Texas, taking advantage of the vacuum that opened up as rival government factions and associated militias fought for power.
Libya’s ambassador to the UN gave an interview to Foreign Policy magazine saying that the crisis there isn’t the fault of the U.S. but an internal failure. Yet that hasn’t stopped Republicans from trying use it against Clinton.
“When you think back to the decisions that were made in 2011, they were really disastrous,” Corker said on June 5. The Libyan intervention will be “a textbook case for what not to do in making foreign policy decisions.”
Republicans have also pursued their investigations into the September 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including American Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Despite previous investigations that haven’t found evidence of wrongdoing, they accuse Clinton of failing to provide enough security before the attacks and blame the administration for misleading people in the immediate aftermath about its causes.
The investigation has since expanded to include her use of a private email server while secretary of state and whether classified information was mishandled.
Clinton addressed Libya in an April CNN Democratic debate, when she was asked about regrets President Barack Obama had recently expressed about not being better prepared for the aftermath of the intervention.
She cited the positive things the U.S. had done, including helping the country hold elections, dismantling the chemical weapons stockpile Gaddafi had amassed and setting up their government. But she told moderator Wolf Blitzer that the U.S. ran into a roadblock on security. When it came to security issues, the Libyans “did not want troops from any other country — not just us, European or other countries — in Libya,” Clinton said. “And so we were caught in a very difficult position.”
She continued, “They could not provide security on their own, which we could see and we told them that, but they didn’t want to have others helping to provide that security.”
The result, she said, “has been a clash between different parts of the country, terrorists taking up some locations in the country. And we can’t walk away from that. We need to be working with European and Arab partners.”
Obama expressed regrets about Libya again during a June 2 town hall in Indiana when he was asked about the one thing in his presidency he would go back and change.
He pointed to Libya, saying the intervention had probably saved “tens of thousands of lives” but that he had done “a little too much counting on other countries to then stabilize and help support government formation, and now it’s kind of a mess.