The attack in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, was practically the only foreign policy issue to come up in the second presidential debate, and it’s sure to come up again in Monday’s final debate, which will be entirely devoted to foreign policy.
Last time around, much of the focus was on whether President Obama called it a “terrorist” act. The evidence on this score is ambiguous: In a Rose Garden statement on Sept. 13, the president did decry “acts of terror,” but it was not clear whether he was referring to Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States or Sept. 11, 2012, in Libya, and after his remarks, other administration spokesmen preferred to ascribe the attack to spontaneous demonstrations over an anti-Islam video.
But one issue is unambiguous: There has been a crippling and dangerous lack of security in Libya since Moammar Kadafi was overthrown last year with the help of NATO airstrikes. This was an issue that many observers worried about while the war was ongoing: Was there a plan to create security and governance after Kadafi’s downfall?
The U.S. could have dispatched an international peacekeeping force for this purpose, on the model of Kosovo and Bosnia, but this option (which I advocated at the time) never seemed to get serious consideration in either Washington or Brussels. Perhaps that’s just as well, because there is little doubt that foreign troops on Libyan soil would have been targeted by the same jihadists who killed the U.S. ambassador and previously had attacked the British ambassador.
But there was also no Plan B. If NATO and the Arab League weren’t going to send peacekeepers, what were they going to do to ensure a modicum of security? The answer is: not much.
Apparently after Kadafi’s fall, the CIA worked with Libyan allies to try to secure the strongman’s remaining stockpile of chemical weapons and possibly some of his shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, but the U.S. did almost nothing to help the new government in Tripoli disarm militias and restore law and order. This left Libya’s new leaders at the mercy of thousands of armed men on its streets who answered only to local warlords or possibly to no one at all.
In a way, if on a much lesser level, Obama was repeating the mistake that President George W. Bush made in Afghanistan and Iraq, two other countries where the U.S. did little to fill a power vacuum after toppling the existing regimes. Those examples should have taught the U.S. a lesson that has been relearned in Libya (and is now being confirmed in Syria): Any power vacuum in the Middle East inevitably gets filled by jihadists, who have access to weapons and a proclivity to use them, while the “silent majority” of moderate Muslims, who are concerned primarily about a better life for themselves and their families, are too cowed to resist.
To be specific, the most costly failure in Libya — for which four State Department representatives paid with their lives — was the failure to do more to help set up a new security force for the nascent, pro-Western state.
Again there is a parallel here with Iraq, albeit on a much smaller scale: While the Bush administration made a mistake in 2003 in disbanding Iraq’s army, as many critics have alleged, it compounded this mistake by not moving more quickly to form a new force. This was a job that was relegated to a small number of ineffectual contractors. It did not become a major mission for the U.S. armed forces until 2004, when, with the country already spinning out of control, then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus took charge of the new Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. The Iraqi security forces began to grow in size and competence, but the process took years to make a meaningful impact.
The Obama administration has waited about as long to get serious about security in Libya. Not until last month, just days before the attacks in Benghazi, did the State Department and Defense Department ask Congress to redirect $8 million in Pentagon funds to send Special Forces teams to help build a 500-strong Libyan special operations force, to be modeled on the highly capable Iraqi and Afghan special operations forces that have been created over the past decade.
Good idea, but it’s too little too late. Why wasn’t such an initiative undertaken a year ago when Kadafi was overthrown? And why is it limited to 500 special operators? However good those troops will turn out to be, by themselves they cannot possibly control thousands of militiamen.
A more ambitious program is needed, to be undertaken not only by the United States but by the same European and Arab allies that waged war to topple Kadafi (especially Britain, France, Qatar and the United Arab Republic). The goal would be to help build a state in Libya capable of controlling its own territory. This won’t require the dispatch of large numbers of ground troops, just trainers and advisors. Libyan troops could also be sent to other nations for instruction, just as some Iraqi police recruits were trained in Jordan.
Nation-building (or, more accurately, “state building”) is an enormously difficult and time-consuming task, but it is also inescapable if we are to avoid more fiascoes like the deadly assault on our Benghazi consulate.
Max Boot is a contributing writer to Opinion. He is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, an advisor to the Romney campaign and author of the forthcoming Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present Day.