President Obama, already musing on failures during his second term, has said he regrets that the U.S. joined a coalition to intervene in Libya in 2011, ousting President Muammar Gaddafi, without an adequate plan for the post-Gaddafi society. “I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this.”
It’s curious that Obama and his allies had not ordered a plan for the new Libya: They had the example of the Iraq invasion in 2003. The war was won quickly but the post-war haunts us still, in part because the war effort was not paralleled with a vigorous peace effort.
President George W. Bush’s speech on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 – “the United States and its allies have prevailed” – was echoed by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s chuckle to a reporter when hearing of Gaddafi’s death, “We came, we saw, he died.” Both thought the loosing of Western military force on dictators had settled the matter: Both lived to know otherwise.
Bush’s speech, now and forever to be known as the “Mission Accomplished” speech (in fact he said: “the mission continues”), is one of idealism: “Decades of lies and intimidation could not make the Iraqi people love their oppressors or desire their own enslavement. Men and women in every culture need liberty like they need food, and water, and air.”
But now, the rhetoric seems hollow. The vacuum created by the fall of the tyrant yielded not democrats (or not enough), but old feuds, hatreds, divisions — and, above all, the militants of jihadism resurgent, al Qaeda, Islamic State and others.
As in Iraq, Libya has known no stability since the toppling of its tyrant, Gaddafi. The first elected prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagour, was out in a month: In four years, the country has had seven prime ministers. Armed Islamist groups are allowed to flourish — there is no reliable army to keep them down — and now control slices of the state. A jihadist government chased the elected administration out of the capital, Tripoli, and rules there: The internationally recognized government huddles in the eastern port city of Tobruk — which older Europeans remember as the site of one of the great battles of World War Two, the first sign that the fortunes of war might turn against the Nazis.
An estimated 10,000 are reckoned, conservatively, to have died in the chaos of Gaddafi’s fall. One of these was the U.S. Ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012.
The message has hit home: Better the dictator you can condemn than the insurgents you cannot control (and may hate you more).
Shorn of any military option, the only hope is to bring the opposing parties to some kind of talks. Earlier this month, the UN special representative in Libya, Bernardino Leon, said that an agreement could be close — to talk, nothing more, and perhaps not even that. Yet so full of hate and bitterness against each other are the warring groups, so convinced of their own virtue and the others’ vices, that any agreement would seem elusive — and, if reached, fragile.
And the jihadists have a bargaining chip: the masses who seek European sanctuary. Horrifyingly, this is the country from which thousands of migrants from all over Africa and the Middle East still pour into the Mediterranean, risking drowning in their yearning for a better life. They come from countries where Islamist groups threaten government, or as in Libya, claim to be it. The European Union is so desperate to stop the exodus that it has proposed military action against the human traffickers, a plan that has drawn derision from the so-called administration in Tripoli – the National Salvation Government. Its foreign minister, Mohamed el-Ghiriani, has warned Libya would “confront” any force that attempted to carry out the threatened destruction: If that were to be avoided, “they have to speak to us.”
An Arab capital is now under jihadist control; it is also in the country closest to the borders of the EU. For two decades, we have been warned that “failed states” are a large threat to Western security: It is vividly clear that the warning was right.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.