Will America ever again be at peace? Pressure is building for the U.S. again to intervene in Libya.
Less than three years after Libya’s civil war the country has ceased to exist. This debacle offers a clear lesson for American policymakers. But denizens of Washington seem never to learn.
The administration presented the issue as one of humanitarian intervention, to save the people of Benghazi from slaughter at the hands of Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy.
Although he was a nasty character, he had slaughtered no one when his forces reclaimed other territory. In Benghazi he only threatened those who had taken up arms against him.
In fact, the allies never believed their rhetoric. They immediately shifted their objective from civilian protection to slow motion regime change. Thousands died in the low-tech civil war.
Alas, Libya was an artificial nation. When Khadafy died political structure vanished. The country split apart. Today multiple warring factions have divided into two broad coalitions.
“Operation Dignity” is a largely secular grouping including Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” and the internationally recognized government. Last May Haftar launched a campaign against the Islamist militias with covert support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
“Libya Dawn” is a mix of Islamists, moderate to radical, and conservative merchants which now controls Tripoli. They are backed by Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey, and deny that the Islamic State poses much of a threat.
Now Libya has become an ISIL outpost. Three jihadist groups have formally claimed allegiance to the Islamic State. These forces have attacked oil installations, killed journalists, and conducted bombings. Some of these militants were responsible for the murder of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
ISIL’s slaughter of Egyptian Coptic workers triggered retaliatory airstrikes by Cairo, and then new Islamic State attacks. The national wreckage known as Libya is being pulled into the regional sectarian maelstrom.
Obviously, Khadafy’s continued rule would have been no picnic. Nevertheless, he offered an ugly stability which looks better than chaos, civil war, and terrorism. British envoy Jonathan Powell warned of the emergence of “Somalia by the Med.”
In Libya, as with most other failed interventions, war advocates say the problem was that America didn’t stick around. But as I point out on Forbes: “the allies only played a supporting role; the Libyans liberated themselves through their own boots on the ground. The militias fighting now would have resisted any foreign occupation.”
Alas, this disastrous history hasn’t precluded new proposals for Western involvement. Abdullah al-Thinni, Libya’s official prime minister, wants the West back. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi advocated that the UN run a “stronger mission.”
Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe that the second (or third) time would be the charm. The Atlantic Council’s Karim Mezran observed: “There are no good guys or bad guys there—both sides have been acting in bad faith.”
The West naturally favors the internationally recognized government. But intervening against the Islamist-oriented government would make enemies of many Libyans not linked to the Islamic State.
The best outcome would be a national unity government as backed by the U.S. and European governments. But months of mediation have led nowhere.
More practical would be to acquiesce in the partition of what never was an organic nation. In the meantime the West should consider selectively lifting the arms embargo to aid groups likely to combat jihadist forces.
Moreover, Libya’s neighbors should act rather than wait helplessly for Washington to do something. The region’s stability is these nations’ business.
Libya’s collapse has been almost total. But so far no one has been held to account.
As problems metastasize with the rise of ISIL in Libya, however, the American people may be more inclined to critically assess the judgment and competence of Washington policymakers. Voters should hold officials accountable for the disaster they created in Libya.