U.S. and Western responsibility for this mess is heavy. Having tipped the outcome of the war against the Gaddafi regime, NATO quickly exited Libya, which was left with no army or political institutions but was awash in weapons. Repeated Libyan requests for assistance in restoring security were brushed off; a small-scale NATO training program based outside the country was little more than symbolic. As in the case of Afghanistan, Congress rejected the Obama administration’s aid requests.
Libya’s attempt to establish a working democracy, meanwhile, was overtaken by infighting among militias, which slowly polarized along an Islamist-secular divide. Libyans appear to prefer secular government: Islamists fared poorly in a parliamentary election held in June. But their military forces, which include a militia from the coastal city of Misurata as well as Ansar al-Sharia, are formidable.
The Obama administration has done its best to ignore Libya’s collapse, even as Republicans in Congress obsess over conspiracy theories about the 2012 Benghazi attack. Administration officials continue to peddle the empty line that “Libya’s challenges can really only be solved by the Libyans themselves,” as Secretary of State John F. Kerry put it this week. Officials point to the newly elected parliament, which convened in the eastern city of Tobruk last weekend, as a possible vehicle for a political settlement.
It’s hard to decide which is more fanciful: the idea that there is some incipient “working democracy” in Libya struggling to get out or that we will intervene to end the chaos there. Liberal democracies are built on institutions and Libya does not possess the institutions that form the foundations for a liberal democracy and can’t develop them quickly. It would take years. Generations. The situation there has always been a contest between warring factions and the only thing that we’ve accomplished is to side temporarily with one of the factions, just long enough to produce chaos.
No one has ever built a nation or even stabilized one from an altitude of 30,000 feet. Air power can do a lot but those are things it can’t do and it’s pretty darned hard for me to imagine the U. S., NATO, or the UN intervening in Libya with a ground force powerful enough and with a mandate to bring order and stability out of the chaos we had a hand in creating.