Bandow: Washington responsible for Libya’s failure

Doug Bandow

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.

Like many presidents in other conflicts, President Barack Obama lied the American people into war. 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.

Still, the chief advocates of what has come to be called Hillary’s war claimed success. Alas, Libya was an artificial nation. When Khadafy died, political structure vanished. The country split apart.

Libya quickly went from disappointment to catastrophe. 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. Haftar is a man of flexible loyalties who last May 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.

The civil war has been intensifying, with combatants utilizing heavy weapons and even air power. Now Libya has become an Islamic State 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 more than two years ago.

The Islamic State’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.” Although Islamic State bluster about “conquering” Rome is just that, European officials now worry about larger refugee flows, drug and weapons smuggling, and new terrorist attacks.

In Libya, as with most other failed interventions, war advocates say the problem was that America didn’t stick around. But the allies only played a supporting role; the Libyans liberated themselves through their own boots on the ground.

Alas, this disastrous history hasn’t precluded new proposals for Western involvement. Abdullah al-Thinni, Libya’s official prime minister, wants the West back. Egypt and France urged the U.N. Security Council to meet on the issue.

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.”

Libya’s collapse has been almost total. But so far no one has been held to account.

As problems metastasize with the rise of the Islamic State in Libya, however, the American people may be more inclined to critically assess the judgment and competence of Washington policymakers.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.