The Libya tragedy that Barack Obama’s administration unleashed with a U.S.-led NATO military intervention in 2011 has entered yet another violent phase. Forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a one-time CIA asset that Washington now opposes, are waging an offensive against the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli. Both the United Nations Security Council and the European Union support the GNA and have passed resolutions demanding that Haftar’s troops cease their advance and adhere to the cease fire and plan for nation-wide elections that French President Emmanuel Macron negotiated last year. It is highly uncertain whether Haftar or his adversaries will heed such calls. More than 120 people have perished already in the new conflict, and fierce fighting continues, especially in and around Tripoli.
Libya’s violent reality is a sharp contrast to the optimism that U.S. officials and its news media allies trumpeted when NATO helped a motley rebel coalition overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. Western leaders and pundits believed that Libya would enjoy a much better future as a result of U.S. and Western ministrations. As Qaddafi fled the capital, President Obama intoned: “Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant.” He added: “The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.” Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were equally gratified and optimistic. “The end of the Gadhafi regime is a victory for the Libyan people and the broader cause of freedom in the Middle East and throughout the world,” they concluded. The two senators, along with colleagues Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), proclaimed during a visit to “liberated” Tripoli that the rebels had “inspired the world.”
Washington’s hopes for an orderly transition to democracy in Libya proved as illusory as they had been in Iraq. Just weeks after Qaddafi’s fall, the insurgents began to fragment, largely along tribal and regional lines. The western tribes started to coalesce around a power center in Tripoli, whereas the eastern tribes generally supported a rival movement headquartered in Benghazi. Haftar gradually gained control over the latter faction, whose armed fighters became the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). Egypt and Saudi Arabia have provided support to that group, while the Western powers threw their support to opposing factions based in Tripoli.
The outcome has been years of low-intensity civil strife, frequently involving local militias under little more than tenuous control by the two rival governments. That chaos has produced a humanitarian catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been displaced internally, while hundreds of thousands more desperately try to flee across the Mediterranean in overcrowded, leaky boats.
It is probable that Haftar is now making a bold bid to control the entire country, not just the eastern portion where the LNA has been dominant for several years. His offensive may be a blessing in disguise, though, since it has the potential to end the country’s political and military fragmentation. Haftar is no heroic armed, democratic insurgent. One of the reasons that Washington declined to back him during and following the 2011 revolution is that U.S. officials believed that he merely wanted to replace Qaddafi as Libya’s new dictator. That assessment may well be correct. But even a new autocrat might be preferable to the ongoing bloody chaos. Washington has done more than enough harm already trying to “save” Libya. The United States, the European Union, and the United Nations should back off and let the Libyan civil war reach a conclusion, regardless of which faction proves victorious.
As I document in a new article in Mediterranean Quarterly, if there was ever a case demonstrating that good intentions in foreign policy are not enough, the 2011 U.S.-led military intervention in Libya is it. U.S. policymakers sought to prevent a slaughter of innocents, overthrow a brutal dictator, and help a new, democratic regime come to power. But policies must be judged by their consequences, not their intentions. Indeed, the observation that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions is all-too-true in Libya’s case. The consequences of U.S. meddling in Libya have been nothing short of hellish and continue to be so.