Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the Massachusetts Conference for Woman, on December 4, 2014.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the Massachusetts Conference for Woman, on December 4, 2014. Elise Amendola/AP

How Hillary's Hawkishness Could Cost Her the Presidency

Clinton's support for the Iraq War backfired in 2008. Her support for the intervention in Libya could do the same in 2016.

Hillary Clinton's Iraq War vote cost her the election in 2008. During that campaign, she touted her experience and judgment to distinguish herself from Democratic rivals. "It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep," her most famous ad said. "But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something is happening in the world. Your vote will determine who answers that call—whether it's someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world ... Who do you want answering the phone?"

Her campaign thought that message would be effective against Barack Obama, a first-term Illinois senator. What geopolitical judgment could he credibly claim? "We've seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security," Clinton declared in a campaign speech. "We cannot let that happen again."

But the next night, during a debate in Cleveland, Obama offered an effective counter. "Senator Clinton equates experience with longevity in Washington," he said. "I don't think the American people do, and I don't think that if you look at the judgments that we've made over the last several years that that's the accurate measure. On the most important foreign-policy decision that we faced in a generation, whether or not to go into Iraq, I was very clear as to why we should not: that it would fan the flames of anti-American sentiment; that it would distract us from Afghanistan; that it would cost us billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and would not make us more safe. And I do not believe it has made us more safe."

What could she say? He was right.

* * *

In 2016, Hillary Clinton will be a formidable candidate, and experience is once again her biggest asset. Voters are warily eyeing ISIS, Vladimir Putin, Al Qaeda, and Iran. And she has added a stint as Secretary of State to her impressive resume.

But her claim to possess sound judgment for tough decision-making is once again vulnerable to attack. I don't mean her Iraq vote, though it could certainly come up again (especially if she ultimately meets Rand Paul, the one Republican who could exploit it). When Obama showed that he didn't really believe the Iraq War to be a decisive judgment test by elevating Iraq hawks to numerous, prominent national-security positions throughout his administration, he all but guaranteed that Democratic Iraq hawks would be embraced rather than discredited going forward. (Even erstwhile anti-war candidate Howard Dean hasjoined the bandwagon.)

On Libya, however, I strongly suspect that Clinton will be attacked by Democrats in the primary and most Republican opponents in a general election (if she makes it that far). Her rivals can hardly resist.

A woman whose primary appeal is ostensibly judgment-born-of-experience urged a U.S. intervention in a country that subsequently descended into bloody anarchy. And this is the second time she has done so.

How bad is Libya? In the summer of 2012, it was clear that Western intervention helped to destabilize Mali. Last year, The New York Times reported this about Libya itself:

The country is coming undone.

Relentless factional fighting in Tripoli and in the eastern city of Benghazi has left dozens of people dead. Well-known political activists have been killed, diplomats have been kidnapped, and ordinary citizens fear bandits on the roads. Water and electricity shutdowns have become more frequent than at any time since the chaos after Colonel Qaddafi’s fall, and fuel has disappeared from Tripoli’s gas stations.

Now the power vacuum is attracting ISIS fighters, per a Wall Street Journal report:

Two rival governments in Libya have fought an increasingly bloody civil war since last summer, as the world paid little attention. While they battled for control of the country’s oil wealth, a third force—Islamic State—took advantage of the chaos to grow stronger. The beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians by Islamic State followers has finally drawn the global spotlight to the group’s rising clout in Libya, which not long ago was touted as a successful example of Western intervention. The killings prompted Egyptian airstrikes on Islamic State strongholds in Libya and spurred calls for more active international involvement in what is fast becoming a failed state on Europe’s doorstep.

The Libyan affiliate of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has, in fact, been spreading its sway for months. First it established an area of control in and around the eastern city of Derna, a historical center of Libyan jihadists. Recently, it also took over parts of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, on the central coast, setting up a radio station and sending Islamic morality patrols onto the streets ... All the while, the two rival governments of Libya focused on combatting one another ... Both preferred to largely ignore the influx of foreign jihadists forming new alliances with local extremists—and their unification under Islamic State’s banner.

With all that in mind, the Libya intervention will be extremely hard to defend, especially given that the Obama Administration ordered it without Congressional permission and in violation of the War Powers Resolution. Clinton will have no good answer for a Democratic rival who says, "I'd forgive your Iraq vote if you'd learned your lesson. But with that debacle fresh in mind, you urged the overthrow another dictator without any idea what would happen afterward. Once again, that empowered Islamist terrorists who now thrive in that country."

Against a Republican, she's more likely to be in a strong position, as so many White House aspirants in the GOP are reflexive hawks. Senator Marco Rubio can hardly complain that Clinton urged regime change in Libya. He favored the same fraught course. Then again, Senator Paul is already referring to the conflict as "Hillary's war."

Eight years after her hawkishness cost her the presidency, Clinton must be looking at events in Libya and thinking, "Uh oh, staff, how am I going to address this?" Perhaps she'll do her utmost to bully Democrats who opposed the Libya intervention out of the Democratic primary and hope the GOP nominates a hawk. Then voters can choose among two candidates with a history of urging failed wars.