War is a terrible thing, as everyone who has ever been in one can testify, but war can tempt a president, and sometimes merely someone with the itch to be a president, as a way to burnish a warrior credential.
The temptation of Hillary Clinton is revealed in several remarkable audio tapes recovered in Tripoli, of conversations revealing how several key members of Congress and the Pentagon stood in the way of a march to unnecessary and needless war in Libya.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported Thursday by The Washington Times, opened their own channels of communication with the regime of Moammar Gadhafi to avoid military conflict. They told the Libyan government that Mrs. Clinton and the State Department were determined to pursue a military solution and were preventing crucial intelligence from getting to the president.
This was an unusual if not unprecedented attempt to bypass the State Department and its role as the sole voice to speak to foreign governments. Rarely if ever has an American president allowed competing departments of the government to speak in the name of his administration. The Pentagon, for its part, clearly thought it was being pushed into a conflict on Mrs. Clinton’s false assumptions.
“It would be highly unusual for the Pentagon to conduct a separate set of diplomatic negotiations, given the way we operated when I was the secretary of State,” James Baker III, who was the secretary of state in the George H.W. Bush administration, told this newspaper. “In our administration, the president made sure that we all sang from the same hymnal.”
Several informed congressional voices were telling Mrs. Clinton to slow down, that all the intelligence services had concluded that there was no looming “humanitarian crisis” on which she proposed to go to war. There was no “weapons of mass destruction moment” available to her.
One of those voices was Dennis Kucinich, then a Democratic representative from Ohio, who said he undertook to have conversations with the Gadhafi regime. “I had facts that indicated America was headed once again into an intervention that was going to be disastrous,” he told the newspaper. “What was being said at the State Department … wasn’t so much about what happened, it was about what would happen. There was a distortion of events that were occurring in Libya to justify an intervention which was essentially wrong and illegal.” Both Robert Gates, who was the secretary of defense, and Adm. Michael Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, strongly opposed Mrs. Clinton’s recommendation to apply force.
Curiously, and dangerously, President Obama apparently did not get everyone in his administration to step back, that he would say who could speak to foreign governments on the behalf of the U.S. government. A voice on the tapes, identified as a “U.S. intelligence liaison working for the Pentagon,” said Mr. Obama had told members of Congress that “Libya is all Secretary Clinton’s matter.”
Other Democrats, some no longer in Congress, expressed doubts about the military intervention ultimately endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Jim Webb, then a senator from Virginia, said there was no clear statement of foreign policy. “We know we don’t like the Gadhafi regime, but we do not have a picture of who the opposition movement really is. We got a vote from the Security Council, but [there were] five key abstentions in that vote” Indeed, five of the 15 members of the Security Council abstained, and several would have vetoed the resolution but for furious pressure from Mrs. Clinton.
The account in The Times will continue through Monday, and it sends a clear message to Congress, with its newly liberated majorities, to discover exactly what happened. The security of the country is never a partisan matter, and it is the first responsibility of every member of the House and Senate.