The Disaster in Libya

by Dave Schuler on August 8, 2014

Speaking of going to war, the editors of the Washington Post warn of the increasingly desperate situation in Libya that we are studiedly ignoring:

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.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

PD Shaw August 8, 2014 at 5:25 pm

I never took a position on Libya, none was asked and the American role was in the back-seat. I thought there was some value in supporting our allies; let’s be frank, the U.S. often uses the NATO alliance as a vehicle for personal goals under a multi-national platform. The Europeans are owed some assistance with what were considerable interests in avoiding a refugee crisis, and disruption of commerce in the Mediterranean Sea, and we have some interest in the latter as well. And removing an anti-American murdering despot like Qaddafi is a plus, but it has to be a plus, not the sole objective. (ahem, Jacksonian Lang, ahem)

But here I am left wondering, didn’t the Europeans have a plan? I don’t feel like this was our gig, and don’t feel the U.S. should feel terribly responsible, other than in assuming the Europeans had a plan. Did I miss something while American opinion wasn’t being engaged?

TastyBits August 8, 2014 at 5:27 pm

The Democrats will not acknowledge it because it was their guy who broke it. The Republicans will not blame him because they called for him to break it.

It is the most recent example of what happens when idiots begin meddling where they have no business, but because they are both to blame, it gets tossed down the memory hole.

I would be a lot more worried about Libya than ISIS, but what do I know. After Assad fell, Syria turned into a thriving democracy. Oh wait, …

Dave Schuler August 8, 2014 at 5:37 pm

But here I am left wondering, didn’t the Europeans have a plan?

Of course they did: let the Americans take care of it.

Is the Europeans’ refugee problem greater or less for removing Qaddafi?

PD Shaw August 8, 2014 at 5:45 pm

“Is the Europeans’ refugee problem greater or less for removing Qaddafi?”

I would assume greater, but I begin to wonder if that problem didn’t exist in the first place. The framework I’m operating under is not unreasonable. We have an interest in A, but Europeans have a much greater interest in A, so we provide some support to the Europeans. Assumptions of efficacy can be misplaced.

Dave Schuler August 8, 2014 at 5:51 pm

The framework I’m operating under is not unreasonable. We have an interest in A, but Europeans have a much greater interest in A, so we provide some support to the Europeans.

I don’t see the situation that way. I see it as “we have a minor interest in A, the Europeans have major interests in A, we effectuate the Europeans’ desired outcome.” I think the Europeans should be developing the capacity to effectuate their own desired outcomes.

TastyBits August 8, 2014 at 6:35 pm

@PD Shaw

After the Iraq invasion, Gaddafi turned over his weapons programs and became a US rat. He was providing intelligence to the US. The US’s interest in Libya was Gaddafi. I realize that may be unsavory, but you protect your rats. That is how it works.

This is why I end up in the non-interventionist camp. At least, they are not going to make things worse.

The Europeans were interested in the oil fields. They were worried that either side would destroy the infrastructure, and the oil would stop flowing.

Does anybody really believe that the Europeans give a rats ass about anybody but themselves?

Andy August 9, 2014 at 2:28 am

PD,

The short answer is that the US hasn’t cornered the market in foreign policy stupidity.

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