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During a joint Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump forum televised on NBC, a member of the audience who had served as an Air Force intelligence specialist asked Clinton whether her "hawkish foreign policy" will continue and whether she had a plan "to end wasteful war campaigns" that result in deaths or injuries to Americans in the military.
Clinton responded that she views force "as a last resort, not a first choice." She added, however, that she will "also be as careful as I can in making the most significant decisions any president and commander-in-chief can make about sending our men and women into harm’s way."
She then turned to specifically address Libya, where the United States, as part of a NATO operation, provided air support in an intervention that resulted in the ouster of the country’s longtime dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. Clinton was serving as secretary of state during the intervention.
"With respect to Libya, again, there’s no difference between my opponent and myself," Clinton said. "He’s on record extensively supporting intervention in Libya, when Gadhafi was threatening to massacre his population. I put together a coalition that included NATO, included the Arab League, and we were able to save lives. We did not lose a single American in that action."
Clinton went on to say that she continued to believe that it was "the right decision," even though many have second-guessed the decision given the country’s later instability, including a significant presence by ISIS.
After the forum, Trump supporters rushed to criticize Clinton’s comment that "we did not lose a single American in that action," arguing that the four Americans who lost their lives in a terrorist attack on a U.S. complex in Benghazi should be counted.
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway tweeted, "#ICYMI Hillary Clinton said last night, ‘We did not lose a single American in Libya.’ Really." Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer echoed this line, tweeting, "Really? @HillaryClinton said we ‘didn't lose a single American in Libya’. She does know #Benghazi is in Libya right? #NBCNewsForum."
Many readers asked us to check Clinton’s statement. It's unusual for us to see a statement where our rating would rely almost entirely on interpretation, but where the facts are not in dispute. So we will lay out the history and let readers decide for themselves.
Were any U.S. lives lost during the military action?
This is the easy part: No American lives were lost in the Libyan campaign.
As the seven-month campaign ended in late October 2011, the Associated Press reported that NATO warplanes had flown 26,000 sorties, a quarter of which were flown by U.S. aircraft, mostly in support roles such as air refuelling and surveillance. European allies and four partner nations conducted most ground attacks.
"The NATO intervention in Libya lasted from March to October 2011, and no Americans were killed in that action," said Alan J. Kuperman, who teaches at the University of Texas-Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs and authored the book Constitutions and Conflict Management in Africa.
The closest the U.S. military came to a battlefield casualty in Libya occurred on March 21, when an Air Force F-15 crashed in eastern Libya with Maj. Kenneth Harney and Capt. Tyler Stark on board. They were rescued and did not suffer significant injuries. That followed the downing of an unmanned Fire Scout drone helicopter.
So, by referring to "that action" -- the seven-month NATO intervention -- Clinton is correct. No U.S. military lives were lost on the battlefield.
"She was very clear that her claim was with respect to the initial military action, not subsequent events," said John Pike, the director of globalsecurity.org. "Her comments (addressed) avoiding ground combat casualties, not embassy security. If she had said, ‘We have not lost a single American in Libya,’ then there would be grounds for criticism, but that is not what she said."
What Clinton is leaving out
The problem, experts say, is that Clinton’s framing is so narrow that it verges on misleading.
"The intervention had the consequence of turning Libya into a failed state, which led to much harm, including the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012," Kuperman said.
The attack by armed Islamic militants on U.S. facilities in Benghazi resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, State Department communications specialist Sean Smith, and a pair of CIA contractors, Glenn Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
In the forum, Clinton used "a very narrow definition, one custom-built to define away any of the larger problems with the Libyan intervention," said Ted Bromund, senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. These problems, in his view, include stretching the operative United Nations resolution to enable regime change rather than just civilian protection, and a relative loss of focus by the United States after the combat phase ended.
Such developments helped turn Libya from "an exceptionally tyrannical and murderous regime to a failed state with a large and violent Islamist presence," Bromund said.
When we contacted the Clinton campaign, they emphasized that she had clearly said "in that action" -- referring to the military operation -- and dismissed the criticism by Conway and Spicer as misquotes of what she said.
But as we noted above, her statement is numerically accurate -- while also so narrowly framed as to be misleading.
Clinton said that "with respect to Libya … we did not lose a single American in that action."
She cited deaths during the "action," which means the NATO military operation. On that score, she accurately said that no Americans died during the seven-month military action. However, the critics have a point that framing it this way ignores a broader look at the consequences of the administration’s decision to intervene in Libya.
Hillary Clinton, remarks at the NBC "Commander in Chief" forum, Sept. 7, 2016
Kellyanne Conway, tweet, Sept. 7, 2016
Sean Spicer, tweet, Sept. 7, 2016
Associated Press, "NATO chief hails 'finally free' Libya," Oct. 31, 2011
MSNBC, "Answers to the top 10 questions asked about Benghazi," Oct. 22, 2015
CNN, "Downed F-15 crew on Libya rescue: 'The best feeling,' " April 28, 2011
Wired, "Drone Copter is NATO’s First Combat Casualty in Libya," June 21, 2011
PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Benghazi: The rhetoric hasn't matched up with reality," May 16, 2014
Email interview with Ted Bromund, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Sept. 8, 2016
Email interview with Alan J. Kuperman, professor at the University of Texas-Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs and author of Constitutions and Conflict Management in Africa, Sept. 8, 2016
Email interview with John Pike, the director of globalsecurity.org, Sept. 8, 2016
Email interview with Josh Schwerin, spokesman for Hillary Clinton, Sept. 8, 2016