Can Obama put Libya back together after causing chaos there?
First the good news: US President Barack Obama is right to sound the alarm about the threat of an Islamic State (ISIS) takeover in Libya. The chaos in that unhappy country is too dangerous to be allowed to continue.
The bad news, of course, is that Obama, energetically pushed to it by his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is at least partially responsible for the catastrophe in Libya in the first place.
For it was Obama, at the urging of the endlessly energetic Clinton, who approved the fateful NATO bombing campaign in 2011 that led to the toppling and killing of Libya’s long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
The campaign at the time was hailed as a triumph in the United States, Britain, France and Italy. None of the NATO allies had to put troops on the ground and the United States did not have to deploy its lethally efficient but endlessly overstretched air force. Britain and France were able to carry out all the air power heavy lifting that was needed.
However, it all went sour very soon. The lack of any exit strategy from Libya created an endless blowback in the region as Qaddafi’s unsecured weapons ended up destabilising Mali and fomenting trouble in Libya’s immediate neighbourhood.
The “political strategy” such as it was that Clinton and her advisers cobbled together for Libya was ill-thought-out and naïve. The enormous batches of email messages relating to the killing on September 11, 2012, of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in Benghazi reveals clearly why.
Clinton gave enormous credence to the delusional fantasies of her long-time friend Sidney Blumenthal, who imagined he could make himself an instant expert on Libya. Yet Blumenthal spoke no Arabic, had never visited the country and probably knew little beforehand of its culture, history and socio-economic structure. He remains a powerful presence at Clinton’s shoulder.
Once again the unholy American trinity of arrogance, ignorance and sheer stupidity worked its lethal wonders and the people of Libya have been suffering ever since.
Now the Americans and Europeans are belatedly waking up to the fact that the dragons’ teeth they sowed so abundantly and recklessly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are creating new monsters in the deserts of Libya, too.
ISIS already has several thousand well-organised active troops operating in Libya and is putting down deep roots in parts of the country. If unchecked, it could provide a serious security threat to Europe as well as threatening terror and destabilisation in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.
US Marine General Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that France, Italy and Britain as well as the US government are looking at developments in Libya with increasing alarm. He also fears that a secure ISIS presence in Libya could lead it to rapidly link up with Boko Haram in Nigeria and metastasise through sub-Saharan Africa.
The key point, as Jennifer Rubin noted in the Washington Post on January 25th, was that the Obama administration, with its usual fecklessness “lost interest and put forth no effort to stabilise the central government and ward off the influx of jihadis”.
Things got no better when John Kerry replaced Clinton as secretary of state. Increasingly obsessed with Syria, Obama and Kerry were taken by surprise when ISIS forces erupted in Iraq in 2014, seized Ramadi and routed the Iraqi Army that US forces had “trained” at such extortionate cost.
Over the next 18 months, they struggled to put together a coalition to block and then roll back ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Needless to say no one on “the team” in Washington bothered paying any attention to the chaos and suffering they and their allies had unleashed in Libya.
The United States certainly has the firepower to target and take out ISIS fighters in Libya: it is good at that.
But when it comes to creating a stable political and social structure in Libya to replace the one it so wantonly slashed, no one should bet on the country.