Paul Pillar

The Most Important Question About Libya

The political inanity about what was said or not said in the first hours and days after the incident in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens continues, and it continues to move farther away from anything of importance to U.S. policy and U.S. interests. With the fixation on minutiae about the editing of some preliminary talking points, it moves farther away even from anything that makes sense in terms of competitive politics. Even if the Obama administration had wanted to manipulate a public version of the Libyan events to help re-elect the president, how would any manipulation on this matter have done that? When has the Obama administration ever contended that international terrorism is not a major security problem (bin Laden or no bin Laden)? Such a contention would only make it all the harder for the administration to justify and explain those drone strikes and how they have become increasingly frequent under Mr. Obama.

It appears that preemptive opposition to a possible nominee for secretary of state is now part of what is sustaining the momentum of what began as a tactic in an election campaign. Please let us focus instead on how in terms of attributes and experience this person would or would not be qualified to be secretary of state, rather than how she handled her talking points on talk shows one Sunday.

Perhaps something else that helps to make this supposed issue credible is an underlying assumption that the foreign intervention that helped to overthrow Muammar Qadhafi, and in which the United States participated, was a good thing and left something approaching a stable situation in Libya. If that assumption were true, then maybe it would make sense to dwell a bit, when violence nonetheless occurs, on the relative influence of things such as Islamophobic films and the machinations of extremist groups. But if instead what was left in Libya is a highly unstable and chronically violent situation in which the plans of terrorist groups, the uncontrolled activities of multiple militias, the inability of governing authorities to secure their own territory, and mass resentment against certain things associated with the United States all get mixed together in a constantly bubbling lethal brew, then any such dwelling is almost pointless. It is the latter situation that in fact describes much of Libya, including Benghazi, today. As Kareem Fahim reports in the New York Times, Ambassador Stevens was only one of about three dozen public servants who have been killed in Benghazi alone over the last year and a half. The government is weaker than the militias, and even militias that have been relied upon as ersatz public security forces are unwilling to go after the likes of Ansar al-Shariah, a group accused of involvement in the attack that killed Stevens.

I have discussed before how one of the largest entries on the balance sheet of the intervention to overthrow Qadhafi is the disincentive it created for other regimes who otherwise might have been willing to reach agreements on weapons programs, terrorism, or other important issues but now are less likely to make a deal because they have a vivid demonstration of U.S. untrustworthiness. Other parts of the balance sheet concern the instability of what was left behind in the country where the intervention occurred. Some in Washington who still believe the intervention in Libya was a good idea are hesitant to intervene in Syria because the United States avoided American casualties in Libya but maybe the same could not be said of an intervention in Syria. Immediate American casualties are certainly a good reason for hesitation, but not the only reason. Sometimes what appears to be the avoidance of casualties is only the delaying of casualties. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans who died with him represent that.

Instead of all the business about preparation of talking points and demeanor on talk shows, the most important question about events in Libya is: was the intervention there worthwhile, and what are the implications for dealing with problem countries elsewhere in the Middle East?