Destroying Libya: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

You must break a few eggs to make an omelet, Washington’s social engineers apparently believe when intervening in other societies. Sure, a few people might die. Others might end up disabled or displaced. But think of all the good that will be done when America’s plans are realized for [fill in the blank country], which will be well on its way to the bountiful future that its people deserve.

This mindset has repeatedly afflicted U.S. policymakers. Get rid of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Oust the Afghan Taliban. Toss out Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Dump Libya’s Muammar Khadafy. Don’t worry, the good times will come.

One might forgive George W. Bush for Iraq. At least a little. His father intervened in Iraq a decade before, bombed Baghdad, destroyed some tanks, freed Kuwait, and got out. Sanctions and no-fly zones remained, but the US didn’t fight an interminable guerrilla war or engage in nation-building. It looked easy. So why shouldn’t Bush fils one-up Bush pere and completely transform the country and region?

Yet after Iraq II how could anyone so carelessly launch another war? Why would anyone assume that blowing up Libya would generate good results, that peace, stability, and democracy would magically appear? President Barack Obama always posed as a reluctant warrior, but he recklessly lent the U.S. military to European states which hoped to force their way back into an area where they once had colonial ties and economic interests.

The more proximate architect of the disaster was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was proud of her handiwork. After hearing reports of Muammar Khadafy’s death, she joked with a reporter: "We came, we saw, he died." Her laughter, more a maniacal cackle, foreshadowed the horror that unfortunate nation had only just begun to suffer.

The Arab Spring erupted in 2011. One of the targets was Khadafy, an unconventional, sometimes downright strange, ruler of a divided tribal society. He was a dictator but was eventually housebroken, so to speak. American military retaliation took him out of the terrorism business. His sons, who sought a more modern Libya, apparently helped convince him to give up his missile and nuclear programs, after the seizure of a shipload of nuclear equipment in late 2003.

Khadafy then became a Western favorite, feted in European capitals. The three (Senate) Horsemen of the Apocalypse, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman, visited Tripoli in 2009, calling Khadafy an ally against terrorism and discussing possibility of US assistance.

However, he was not fated to live happily ever after. Once his people rose in revolt, his fair-weather friends joined the mob. They excused their volte face with the claim that he was preparing to massacre civilians, which was ostentatiously false. He was a garden variety thug, certainly no friend of liberty, but no worse than the other dictators then routinely supported by the West. The allies simply preferred a more pliable ruler. The Europeans rushed to oust him. The apocalyptic horsemen donned warpaint and made the rounds of TV talk shows calling on Washington to start bombing. The Obama administration enthusiastically obliged while "leading from behind." Khadafy’s ugly end in Sirte in October 2011 was captured on YouTube.

After that a pro-American peace-loving liberal democracy was supposed to magically sprout, as the lion and lamb together danced off into the sunset. Unfortunately, something went wrong as the victors fought among themselves. East versus west, religious versus secular, ethnic versus Islamist, and moderate Islamist versus murderous Islamist. Three years later Amnesty International noted that: "Armed groups have tortured-and probably summarily killed-detainees in their custody, and have committed a wave of abductions targeting civilians based on their origins or perceived political allegiance."

Six years later the civil war still rages. The UN-recognized authority, the Government of National Accord, is fighting the Libyan National Army, authorized by the elected House of Representatives. Both sides are made up of jihadists, militias, Islamists, reformists and tribes in varying proportions scattered about in different cities and regions. Foreigners provide diplomatic, financial, materiel, and combat support. Italy, Qatar, and Turkey line up with the GNA, versus Bahrain, Egypt, France, Jordan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, which back the LNA. Greece and Cyprus oppose Ankara’s involvement but have little interest in the underlying conflict. At different points Algeria, Belarus, Chad, Iran, Sudan, and even Ukraine also were involved.

Combat races back and forth across Libya. Earlier this year the LNA’s Khalifa Haftar, a self-styled field marshal with more defeats than victories to his name, was on the march after Russia sent in mercenaries and aircraft. Then the GNA, with a significant boost from Turkey, which deployed drones, mercenaries, and advisers, rolled back the LNA assault on Tripoli. Despite Haftar’s recent setbacks, however, he continues to control most of the territory and oil.

Neither side looks strong enough to conquer the other. So far every success seems to spur the other side’s patrons to hike assistance and rebalance the struggle. Indeed, the GNA’s recent advance led Egypt to threaten to intervene militarily. Libya’s nominal government criticized what it called Cairo’s "declaration of war," but the Egyptian army is ill-prepared for foreign deployment. Nevertheless, if the al-Sisi government moves into its neighbor Ankara will feel pressure to introduce ground troops.

Making the conflict particularly dangerous is the potential for just such a clash between outside powers. Russia evacuated mercenaries employed by the Wagner Group amid the Turkish-inspired GNA rout of its opponents. Ankara reportedly has been pushing for greater financial contributions from Qatar, which is locked in a diplomatic and economic conflict with the Saudis and Emiratis. A GNA base used by Ankara was bombed by UAE planes likely based at Egyptian airfields. Greek and French ships, tasked with enforcing the UN arms embargo on Libya, confronted a cargo vessel suspected of carrying arms to Libya accompanied by three Turkish warships, leading to a public NATO spat. Washington leaned toward Paris as Ankara accused the French of lying about the incident.

Virtually no outsider involved in Libya cares about the Libyan people. Foreign involvement costs and risks relatively little while locals suffer and die. Allied governments act like circling vultures, desperate to strip the Libyan carcass clean. Turkey wants access to oil and Tripoli’s support to illegally develop Mediterranean resources belonging to Cyprus and Greece. Russia expects a base or two, desires to recover some of the commercial opportunities lost with Khadafy’s overthrow, and hopes to frustrate US influence. Egypt desires to prevent incursions from Islamic radicals. Qatar, the Kingdom, and UAE want to thwart each other. France and Italy hope for commercial and energy opportunities and to restrain economic migrants from crossing to Europe. Some of the thousands of Islamist insurgents imported from Syria by both Ankara and Moscow might seek to stay in Libya or move on throughout Africa and Europe.

All this is tragic, of course, but none of it matters much to America. So far Washington’s military involvement has been limited to drone strikes in Libya’s south against al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants. The US has taken multiple positions toward the competing governments. The State Department backs the official but mildly Islamist GNA-with connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and support from onetime Syrian jihadist insurgents imported by Turkey. In contrast, the president likes Haftar, who became a US citizen and CIA asset while in exile in America. Reported the White House, Trump "recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil routes." Moreover, Erdogan claims to have reached an oral agreement with the president. No one knows its terms, but in practice the latter’s views have had little impact on policy.

A recent study for the Jewish Institute for National Security of America complained: "Turkey’s recent intervention in Libya’s civil war has intensified the involvement of rival foreign powers in the strategically situated, energy-rich country, and threatens vital US interests in the Eastern Mediterranean even as Washington mostly observes from the sidelines." Yet what aspect of this conflict is even modestly important to America?

The US remains the region’s dominant power and is allied with or friendly to most European, Middle Eastern, and North African states. Washington enjoys unencumbered access to the region’s energy resources and unhindered sway in the Mediterranean. Libya long was a hostile power, so almost any outcome will give the US greater influence than before. All of the current outside participants, save Russia, are Washington’s allies. Which means America’s interests likely will be little affected irrespective of the outcome.

In fact, the proper policy reaction toward Libya in Washington should be: Who cares? Unfortunately, some American policymakers do. For instance, Eric Edelman and Charles Wald, a Pentagon official and military officer, respectively, contended: "The time has come for the United States to assert a crucial leadership role in addressing the Libyan conflict and forestalling Turkish and Russian influence over this strategically-located, energy-rich country on Europe’s doorstep." Similarly, the Washington Institute’s Ben Fishman argued that "Directly engaging all parties is essential if Washington hopes to advance a national dialogue and prevent a Turkish-Russian accommodation that establishes their presence in Libya indefinitely."

These are nice thoughts. But precisely how should the US oust the two most active nations in Libya, which have allied militarily with the two most important local factions? Not easily, and it shouldn’t try to do so. Washington has no reason to choose one side over the other. In fact, the best position for the administration to take on Libya is none. American diplomats should run screaming from any room in which the topic is broached. Since the US helped open the Libyan Pandora’s Box the disaster there is substantially of this nation’s making. But there is little positive that Washington can do now.

The rest of us should banish US policymakers who helped cause so much human chaos from polite company. Even more so, however, we should prevent them from dragging America back into the Libyan imbroglio. The cause of so much death and destruction remains Washington’s initial intervention, not its more recent refusal to intervene again.

When Italy pushed the administration to do something, Trump replied: "I think the United States has right now enough roles. We’re in a role everywhere." He’s right. There is no reason for the US to take on responsibility for Libya. The only truly good outcome-creation of a genuinely democratic state that represents its people and avoids conflict-probably is the least likely result.

Policymakers should use the Libyan disaster as a "teachable moment," alongside the Iraq debacle and Afghan boondoggle.

First, when other countries, in this case the prosperous, populous Europeans, ask the US to intervene, Washington should invite them to act like serious nations and do the job themselves. If more than a score of European governments are not able to defeat the likes of Muammar Khadafy-after his own people revolted-then the continent faces far bigger problems than chaos in North Africa.

Second, wannabe warriors peddling grand schemes for international conquest should be asked to detail their endgame. Many existing rulers, like Khadafy, are not democratic paragons. But it turns out that war is a very poor humanitarian instrument. What precisely will follow the current regime? Who is going to make sure things are not worse than before? And where does the buck stop if disaster occurs?

Third, precisely what American interest is at stake in the latest crisis du jour? There may be no place on earth that at least one US policy advocate has not described as "vital." After all, how can American democracy survive if [fill in the blank country] is conquered, destabilized, subverted, or otherwise diverted from its course as a friend, partner, or ally of Washington? It turns out that the US can get along quite well despite the mess that resulted in Libya. Washington has few interests, and certainly no vital ones, at stake there … and in so many other places around the globe.

Fourth, what long-term message does intervention send? The political and policy community is easily focused on the immediate. Advocates are committed to their causes. Pundits want article clicks. Journalists crave news hooks. Politicians seek partisan advantage. Yet long after those seemingly urgent needs are met Washington will be stuck with the costly consequences of its mistaken policies. As in Libya.

Set aside the human carnage for a moment. Khadafy’s overthrow opened ungoverned/contested space for Islamist radicals, most notably the Islamic State. The chaos invited multiple governments to intervene. The use of humanitarian claims to win Chinese and Russian approval of what became a UN-authorized regime change operation left them feeling betrayed. And the unthinking willingness to overthrow someone who had agreed to disarm made it unlikely that any future dictator will show similar forbearance. Of course, this ill-considered misadventure followed the disastrous Iraq invasion, which generated even worse humanitarian carnage, empowered Iran, and unleashed al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into ISIS.

In Libya a deadlock, in which neither side sees much hope of conquering the entire country, may offer the best hope of a negotiated settlement. None of the outside states want to get more deeply involved in a serious major power conflict, so they might be willing to share influence and move on to other crises. Indeed, the fact that Ankara and Moscow, which have cooperated in Syria, are taking lead roles on opposite sides in Libya makes a modus vivendi more likely. Also helpful is the fact that the country could be divided, formally or informally, into two or three pieces, better representing the territory and people and more easily allowing outsiders to share influence. Although that makes a democratic, liberal outcome unlikely, at least the war would be over.

In looking at the sad chaos enveloping Libya, Americans should say better out than in. In Iraq our countrymen and women died for years after Washington created chaos out of tyranny. The US should leave Libya’s mess to others to clean up. Too many Americans have suffered in endless wars which did not concern them or the nation which they serve.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.