“A more democratic region will ultimately be more stable for us and our friends. Even if someone wants to be dictatorial, it’s going to be difficult.”
—An American diplomat, after the overthrow of a Middle Eastern dictator
That quote sounds as if it came from what the foreign policy elite in the Obama administration would call some “neocon nut job,” with an eerie echo of the blindly confident rhetoric from the early days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003. Except this time the speaker wasn’t a neocon nut job, and it was May 2012. Denis McDonough, then U.S. President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, was taking a victory lap in a speech at a Washington think tank. And he wasn’t boasting about Iraq; he was crowing about Libya.
The Obama administration, “leading from behind” (a term used by an Obama adviser quoted in The New Yorker), had allowed NATO to bomb Colonel Muammar El Qaddafi’s army to oblivion, and the Libyan dictator had been killed by rebels on October 20, 2011, in his hometown, Sirte. Then, in 2012, in Libya’s first post-Qaddafi election, a secular party called the National Forces Alliance won the largest bloc of seats and gained 48 percent of the vote. All that was missing was video of beaming first-time voters dipping their thumbs in blue ink, Iraq-style. Democracy was on the march in Libya!
How did it all happen? The Obama administration’s foreign policy team has, throughout the seven and a half years of its life, touted its use of “smart power.” This, of course, was meant to stand in contrast to the preceding president, whose policies this administration viewed as the very definition of “dumb power.” In 2011, just a few months after the so-called Arab Spring erupted, the smart power crowd had a critical decision to make. Demonstrations and mounting violence in Libya against the regime had rattled Qaddafi, but he was determined to end the uprising, using overwhelming force against his own people if necessary. The U.S., France and Britain persuaded the United Nations to declare a no-fly zone in Libya that they would enforce, and on March 11, 2011, the French carried out the first strike. “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy,” Obama said.
The language was striking and, for Obama and his team, important. It implicitly invoked a doctrine known as “the responsibility to protect.” That doctrine was created by diplomats in the Canadian foreign ministry at the beginning of this century, but its most prominent champion is Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. Power, as a freelancer for this magazine, covered the war in Bosnia in the 1990s.
Outraged by what she saw there, she eventually wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell, in which she describes the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia and Rwanda and argues passionately that it is the obligation of the world’s foremost powers to prevent such genocides.
With Qaddafi promising a brutal crackdown, the conflict in Libya looked like a possible genocide in the making. D.C. was determined that this could not be a repeat of 1991, when U.S. forces left Iraq after driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and the dictator turned his helicopter gunships on a Shiite uprising in the south and murdered thousands. When the U.S.-led coalition left, the world had turned its eyes away from Iraq. The Obama administration was determined to make sure that would not happen now, in Libya, where the conflict was presented by a mostly credulous Western media as a struggle between a tyrant and those who sought freedom and democracy.
Obama decided to intervene in Libya, but he would let the French and the Brits take the lead. And after Qaddafi was gone, the U.S. would pull back. Obama had been conflicted in his decision, given his commitment to reducing U.S. engagement in the Middle East. A plan that did not involve large numbers of troops would conform with that, implying no long-term commitment of U.S. forces. And it enabled the Obama team to send a message: See, we’re so much smarter than the Bushies, who committed huge armies to Afghanistan and Iraq for years after those invasions, at a massive cost in lives and resources. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would later call it an exercise of “smart power at its best.”
The military strategy involved heavy use of NATO air power from above, while the coalition would arm groups to take the fight to Qaddafi’s well-equipped army on the ground. Qatar, with the Obama administration’s blessing, flew in 20,000 tons of weaponry and handed it out to a variety of militias—many led by hard-core jihadis. That they were the heart of the opposition was inevitable: Salafist Sunni jihadis had been Qaddafi’s principal opposition for more than three decades. But as these militias became stronger, regional intelligence agencies became increasingly concerned. A significant number of the jihadis receiving arms and training were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), hard-core Al Qaeda fighters and veterans of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, including several who had been scooped up on the battlefield or abroad and sent back to do prison time in Libya or at Guantánamo Bay.
There are significant differences of opinion now as to whether administration officials were warned in 2011 about the consequences of arming LIFG fighters—and others like them. A senior Middle Eastern intelligence officer says, “We had real concerns specifically as to who the Qataris were working with and giving weapons to…. We raised them [with Washington]. We didn’t get much response.” But a former senior U.S. intelligence official shrugs this off. “It wasn’t like the CIA didn’t know who these guys were,” says the official. “Who else was going to do the fighting?”
Qaddafi had contributed to the problem. In 2005, after reaching a deal with the West to give up weapons of mass destruction and during a rapprochement with Washington, his son, Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, persuaded his father to try to reach an accommodation with his Islamist opponents. In return for signing a document saying they would no longer oppose the regime, scores were released from Libyan jails, and dozens more who had been living in exile returned to Libya. These men happily returned to the battle once the regime was threatened in 2011.
A senior Arab intelligence official says he believes Qaddafi sought a deal with his Islamist enemies because he thought he was dealing from a position of strength. He had given up his nuclear and chemical weapons programs, as Washington had demanded, and had begun sharing intelligence with the U.S. “He had made his peace with Washington, he thought, and felt emboldened by that. That turned out to be a mistake,” the official says.
The same source—who works in a government whose relations with the Obama administration have been rocky but whose intelligence service still works closely with the CIA—says he and his agency were puzzled by Washington’s decision to turn on Qaddafi. “Wasn’t the core national interest of the United States regarding Libya—that it not possess weapons of mass destruction and not be overtly hostile—basically secured?”
He adds that backing the rebels was shortsighted for many reasons. “Did they really think it was going to go smoothly in the aftermath? Why would they think that? Simply because they weren’t going to occupy the country? Not a lot of it made sense to us.”
Sure enough, Qaddafi’s death did not bring stability. A hodgepodge of Islamic militia groups oversee vast swaths of territory; some, loyal to Al Qaeda, have operated in Libya for decades and, like the LIFG, were critical in the fight to overthrow Qaddafi. Others are new.
In Sirte, on Libya’s northern coast, southeast of Tripoli, the black flag of Daesh now flies. Some 6,000 Daesh fighters have flowed into Libya over the past two years. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the group has diverted food and medicine to its fighters and carried out dozens of executions of civilians since August of last year. “Sirte residents,” the report says, “described scenes of horror—public beheadings, corpses in orange jumpsuits hanging from scaffolding in what they referred to as ‘crucifixions’ and masked fighters snatching men from their beds in the night.”
In January of this year, as Libya teetered, a U.N.-backed administration, the Government of National Accord, formed in exile, in Tunisia. In March, that government moved to Tripoli and is now gamely trying to end the anarchy. Militias loyal to it—aided by a handful of U.S. and U.K. special operations forces—started a month or so ago to take the fight to Daesh in Sirte. The militias have made gains, seizing land around the city, and fighting has been fierce—34 pro-government militia members were killed on January 21 and another 100 wounded. But so far, the assault has been inconclusive.
The Government of National Accord has asked that the arms embargo on Libya be lifted, and NATO has agreed to begin training Libyan government troops—though exactly when and where is still undecided. Three intelligence sources in the region tell Newsweek they expect, at some point, an increase in NATO troops on the ground in Libya. “It’s inevitable,” says one. “Libya is a strategic beachhead for them, a dagger aimed at Europe. NATO can’t tolerate that.”
In the meantime, more and more Libyans take what an International Office for Migration spokesman called “the preferred route” out of the country: boarding any vessel they can, no matter how flimsy, to cross the Mediterranean to Italy. More than 1,300 such migrants died trying in the first four months of this year.
Obama, to his credit, admitted in a recent interview with The Atlantic that his biggest mistake as president was Libya—specifically, failing to plan for the aftermath. He has also blamed U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron for getting “distracted” and the French for not following through to secure the country.
But his owning up to the mistake was nonetheless breathtaking, for a very obvious reason: Obama was elected in part for his opposition to a dumb war run by an administration that had no clue what would happen once Saddam was gone. That his administration—the purveyors of “smart power’’—would forget Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn” rule—you break it, you own it—is beyond ironic.
It also poses a problem for Clinton, and forces her to answer for her role in the debacle—something the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has not yet had to do in detail, in part because Republicans became obsessed with the four deaths at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. That tragedy, it turns out, was but a harbinger of a much bigger, far more dangerous problem, whose menace grows by the day.