Many episodes, or aspects of episodes, in American foreign policy quickly get pigeon-holed as successes or failures. The label gets stuck to the episode, as a frozen judgment from an earlier time, and then the episode gets repeatedly referred to in such terms. The Western intervention in Libya two years ago customarily gets labeled this way as a success. The basic facts underlying that judgment are that the intervention helped to topple a dictator who was widely loathed, and did so with minimal direct cost to a war-weary American public.
In the ensuing two years, a difficult and unpleasant reality in Libya has displaced many of the hopes and assumptions that prevailed when Muammar Qadhafi was ousted and killed. That is, it has displaced them on the ground in Libya, but not necessarily in the American consciousness. Early dramatic chapters in a foreign policy story generally have more effect on the judgments prevailing in American minds than do less dramatic chapters that are slowly written later. In the case of Libya, that pattern has been accentuated by the competition for attention from other Middle Eastern stories during the past two years, particularly those in Egypt and Syria. Since Qadhafi was eliminated, the foreign policy community in the United States has paid relatively little attention to the dismal scene in Libya.
The one event in Libya during the past two years that did get a lot of attention from the American political elite—a lethal attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi—was so completely and crudely seized upon, in the midst of a U.S. election campaign, as a partisan way to try to score points against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that it immediately became useless as input to a well-reasoned consideration of what the incident demonstrated was happening in Libya. Such a consideration would have seen the attack as one indication of how Libya has been during these past two years a deeply insecure and unstable place, laced with violent and extreme elements.
There have been plenty of other indications of that sad reality. Internal security in much of the country has become the function of militias that do not answer to any government and are also the sources of much of the insecurity. The Libyan economy has been paying a big price for the disorder and insecurity. Production of oil is still only a fraction of the 1.6 million barrels per day that it was at prior to the civil war. Disillusionment among ordinary Libyans over the shortage of physical and economic security has grown. Libya today exhibits some of the attributes of a failing state.
Another indication, during the past week, was the unilateral capture in Libya by U.S. special forces of an al-Qaeda terrorist, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai (Anas al-Libi), alleged to have played a major role in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania fifteen years ago. The U.S. and Libyan governments have made contradictory statements about the extent to which the former may have given word in advance to the latter about the operation. This evokes memories of recriminations following U.S. capture of a suspected terrorist in Italy several years ago, but Libya is not at all like Italy. In this respect it is more like Pakistan, only worse with regard to how senior governmental leaders have trouble exerting control and excluding radicals from gaining knowledge and influence. If the United States gave little specific advance warning of the seizure of al-Ruqai, it was with good reason in order not to blow the operation. Say what you want about Qadhafi, but after he started coming to terms with the West more than a decade ago he became a more capable and reliable partner in opposing terrorists of al-Ruqai's ilk than what we have in Libya now.
Based on the internal situation alone it is hard to call policy on Libya a success. Then there are the other disadvantageous legacies of the U.S. and western intervention in the civil war. This includes the distrust of Russia, which believes with good reason that it was the victim of a bait-and-switch in accepting a supposedly humanitarian operation that turned into one of regime change. It also includes the troublesome lesson to Iran, North Korea, and others that even giving up unconventional weapons and international terrorism is not enough to get the United States to live up to its side of a bargain.
Yochi Dreazen writes that the nabbing of al-Ruqai was a personal and professional “triumph” for national security adviser Susan Rice, who was the assistant secretary of state responsible for Africa at the time of the embassy bombings. Perhaps instead of feeling triumphant Rice ought to reflect on how it came to be that a major al-Qaeda operative was living in Libya amid conditions in which the U.S. military had to conduct its own raid to capture him. She and others whose liberal interventionist juices the Libyan civil war got flowing should also think about what this implies concerning the wisdom of the 2011 intervention, and what lessons should be drawn about any similar situations that arise in the future.