Almost everything we have been told about Libya over the last two years is untrue.
A free Libya was supposed to be proof of President Barack Obama’s enlightened reset Middle East policy. When insurgency broke out there, the United States joined France and Great Britain in bombing Moammar Gadhafi out of power — and supposedly empowering a democratic Arab Spring. Not a single American life was lost.
Libyans, like most in the Arab World, were supposed to appreciate the new enlightened American foreign policy. Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech praised Islam and apologized for the West. A new “lead from behind” multilateralism was said to have superseded George W. Bush’s neo-imperialist interventions of the past.
Obama’s mixed-racial identity and his father’s Muslim heritage would also win over the hearts and minds of Libyans after the Gadhafi nightmare. During this summer’s Democratic convention, Obama supporters trumpeted the successes of his Middle East policy: Osama bin Laden dead, al-Qaida defanged and Arab Spring reformers in place of dictators.
To keep that shining message viable until the November election, the Obama administration and the media had been willing to overlook or mischaracterize all sorts of disturbing events. We had asked for a United Nations resolution for humanitarian aid and a no-fly zone to intervene in Libya, but then deliberately exceeded it by bombing Gadhafi’s forces — after bypassing the U.S. Congress in favor of a go-ahead from the Arab League.
Libya was not so much liberated as descending into the chaos of tribal payback. Former Gadhafi supporters and African mercenaries were executed by those we helped. Islamists began consolidating power, desecrating a British military cemetery and driving out Westerners.
On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, a radical Islamist hit team with heavy weapons stormed the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
In response, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, National Intelligence Director James Clapper and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice desperately insisted that the murders were a one-time, ad hoc demonstration gone awry, without much larger significance. Supposedly, a few Muslim outliers — inflamed over one American’s anti-Islamic Internet video — had overreacted and stormed the consulate. Such anger was “natural,” assured the president.
But why would furor over an obscure, months-old Internet video just happen to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary attack? Do demonstrators customarily bring along rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and heavy machine guns? Why did the Libyan government attribute the killings to an al-Qaida affiliate when the Obama administration would not?
Forget those questions: For most of September, desperate administration officials still clung to the myth that the Libyan catastrophe was a result of a single obnoxious video. At the United Nations, the president castigated the uncouth film. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lamented the senseless spontaneous violence that grew out of one American’s excesses, as she spoke beside the returning coffins of the slain Americans.
Nonetheless, more disturbing facts kept emerging: Ambassador Stevens repeatedly had warned his State Department superiors of impending Islamist violence. Security personnel had also urged beefing up the protection of the consulate. Video of the attack revealed that there had been no demonstration at all, but rather a full-fledged terrorist assault.
Even as the fantasy of a spur-of-the-moment demonstration dissipated, administration officials tried to salvage it — and with it their idealistic policy in the Middle East. Vice President Joe Biden told a flat-out whopper in last week’s debate, saying the administration hadn’t been informed that Americans in Libya had ever requested more security. He scapegoated the intelligence agencies for supposedly failing to warn the administration of the threat.
The new administration narrative faulted not one video, but the intelligence community for misleading them about the threat of an al-Qaida hit on an American Consulate — and the Romney campaign for demanding answers about a slain ambassador and his associates. Meanwhile, the State Department, the Obama re-election team and the intelligence community were all pointing fingers at one another.
What the Obama administration could not concede was the truth: The lead-from-behind intervention in Libya had proved a blueprint for nothing. Libya has descended into chaos. Radical Islam had either subverted or hijacked the Arab Spring. Al-Qaida was not dismantled by the death of bin Laden or by the stepped-up drone assassination missions in Pakistan. Egypt was becoming Islamist; Syria was a bloody mess. Iran was on the way to becoming nuclear. Obama had won America no more good will in the Middle East than had prior presidents.
In other words, the administration’s entire experience in Libya — and in most of the Middle East in general — has been a bright and shining lie.
Tribune Media Services
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.