Events in Libya are rendering it increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that President Obama’s 2011 military action in that country, hailed by his administration and many others as a model of measured interventionism, was in fact a very large mistake. That intervention set in motion events that aren’t good for Libya, for the United States or for the world.
Washington Post reporter Abigail Hauslohner, writing from Darna, Libya, paints a chilling picture of the armed Islamist extremists who are terrorizing that eastern Libyan city with bombings and death threats designed to push the region and the entire country toward an Islamist culture guided by sharia law. As Hauslohner puts it, “What is unfolding here may be the most extreme example of the confrontation underway across Libya, underscoring just how deeply the fundamentalists have sown their seeds in the security vacuum that has defined Libya since the fall of Moammar Qaddafi last September."
Let’s pause over that sentence to parse what the reporter is telling us. She says there is a confrontation unfolding throughout the country, of which the violent actions in Darna are merely the most extreme element. She says the fundamentalists have positioned themselves to possibly prevail in this confrontation. This positioning stems from the security vacuum that emerged in the country with the fall of the country’s strongman leader, Qaddafi.
So it seems that these unfortunate developments all go back to Qaddafi’s fall, which the United States under President Obama helped set in motion. So the question arises: What responsibility accrues to the United States, and its president, for what’s happening in Libya now?
What’s happening is a budding Islamist revolution bent on turning Libya into another Afghanistan during its pre-9/11 days under the Taliban. The extremists, says Hauslohner, have taken cover in remote areas following the killing of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on September 11. But local officials are powerless to thwart them as they push their ideology with a powerful fervor.
What’s more (and more ominous), Hauslohner quotes a number of Libyans as saying that extremist views "are held much more broadly than just among the Islamist militias themselves, a fact . . . the United States has failed to understand." Indeed, recruitment in this environment apparently is proving to be rather easy for the Islamist militias.
And it will get easier still when the United States unleashes its first drone attacks against the Libyans who killed Ambassador Stevens and the three other Americans. According to Hauslohner, a fundamentalist imam in Darna and other local officials told her that a U.S. drone strike "would earn the militants more friends than foes, drawing the support of foreign jihadists to an easily accessible fight, and turning Libya’s Green Mountains into a new Pakistan."
What are we to make of all this? As Hauslohner makes clear, it all goes back to the fall of Qaddafi. President Obama, in taking credit for his role in bringing down Qaddafi, said a decision to refrain from such actions "would have been a betrayal of who we are." But how precisely does the United States betray its identity when it declines to involve itself in the internal affairs of other countries? And how precisely does the United States fulfill its identity by unleashing highly armed and dangerous radical fundamentalists on the people of Libya?
Of course, Obama had no idea his actions would lead to the emergence of these militias—or, for that matter, to an environment that would prove inherently threatening to U.S. diplomatic personnel in Libya. But that gets to the heart of the problem—the widespread American notion that when people rise up against a dictator in far-off regions of the world, they inevitably are motivated by a reverence for Western democratic norms and will therefore welcome U.S. intervention as coming from ideological soul mates.
Not so. The world is a complex and messy place, filled with all kinds of cultural and ideological impulses, convictions, ambitions and angers—some held with an intensity that generates a willingness to kill and die for them. Thus do they become the stuff of unintended consequences.
Obama took great pride in his resolve to curtail U.S. military action in Libya and keep it within well-defined limits. But military actions in Libya—or over Libya—are ongoing. According to Hauslohner, the first sightings of U.S. drone aircraft over Libya were reported in July, "in what American officials have said was an effort that preceded the Benghazi attack to gather intelligence on Libya’s extremist groups."
Now, in the wake of that attack, it’s almost inevitable that drones will be used in a retaliatory strike to take recourse against those who killed U.S. citizens. That will deepen the conflict by generating an Islamist retaliation, which in turn will bring America further into the turmoil (as the Benghazi attack did) by necessitating a response. And the cycle will continue, leading to where we know not.
Perhaps it’s debatable whether America’s assistance in bringing down Qaddafi ultimately proved beneficial or harmful to the Libyan people. But, looking at Libyan events as they have unfolded since, it certainly wasn’t beneficial to the American people. The deaths of four American citizens and a new drone war can’t be seen as being in America’s national interest.
In touting his actions last year, Obama said that, with the military effort winding down, "what we can do—and will do—is support the aspirations of the Libyan people." Even if the president could explain definitively just what those aspirations are—which he can’t in the face of the events described by Hauslohner—that still wouldn’t support any argument that such a mission served vital U.S. interests. Interventions have consequences, often unforeseen and often deleterious.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.