Libya and Iraq Were Never the West's to Lose

Remnant unexploded ordnance in postrevolutionary Libya. Flickr/Creative Commons/UN Development Programme

We seem to regard the liberated not as agents but as objects.

There is a persistent charge, across a wide body of political opinion and commentary, that Western intervening powers “lost” Iraq and Libya. By pulling out, or failing to engage enough, the West opened the way for new centrifugal forces, and new predators, to grow in the Middle East and North Africa. What we might call the “abandonment thesis” is superficially attractive, as it suggests that dark things happened primarily because we, the U.S.-led West, “let” them happen. Even as it induces feelings of shame, it affirms our pivotal importance and promises that we can exert high levels of control if we get it right next time. Yet a closer look at the history of both countries demonstrates that neither were the West’s to “lose.” The main force driving Western withdrawal was the will of the host population. That one of our most cherished assumptions might be wrong is something to bear in mind, next time we are tempted to break a state.

The accusation of abandonment haunts the legacies of former premiers David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy. Critics complain that the Anglo-French coalition that pushed hard for the campaign in 2011 to prevent a massacre and then overthrow the vile Colonel Qaddafi left Libya in the lurch after Gaddafi was toppled. Since then, a disaster has taken place. Libyan society unraveled into an atomized, conflict-ridden chaos, as oil production plummeted, rival parliaments formed, torture and abuse thrived, and Islamists seized new footholds. Subsequent squabbles and inquests put most blame on Europeans or Americans for their distraction afterwards, for failing to take ownership of the aftermath, and failing to finish the job. Outsiders ought to have sent in training missions to restructure the Libyan army, insert multinational peacekeeping forces, reconstruct the country and leverage the government to pursue reconciliation between political enemies. This all rests on a general assumption that Libyans, or at least those who wielded power, wanted the help.

Abandonment charges also dog the presidency of Barack Obama as it enters its twilight. He unwisely withdrew from Iraq in December 2011 and failed to keep a significant presence in the country, so it is said, just as a real but fragile victory was at hand. This created a vacuum for sectarian breakdown and its most monstrous byproduct, the capitulation of the Iraqi Army as the Islamic State expanded and captured a belt of territory and stormed Mosul, Iraq’s second city. The very urban center where General David Petraeus first found the way to recovery through a counterinsurgency renaissance became the platform for the new Caliphate, proclaimed in its great al-Nuri mosque. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has peddled this storyline, slamming the Obama administration for fleeing Iraq. As it happens, Trump advocated immediate withdrawal in March 2007, when levels of violence were far higher. That only suggests Trump’s shallow opportunism, however, rather than discrediting the claim itself.

The abandonment thesis deserves further scrutiny, and not just because the reputations of recent leaders are at stake. It carries important implications about how we define problems in future. If it is true, we can infer that in future armed interventions, the difference between success and disappointment is Western willpower and staying power. In other words, there is nothing inherently wrong with efforts like Iraq or Libya. To work, the liberation business just needs a technical fix, underpinned by political will, in the form of increased commitment: more troops, more money, more diplomatic effort, more time, more pain. If the abandonment thesis is true, the problem is simple, if not easy.