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Joshua Hersh Headshot

Libya Consulate Attack Poses Hard Questions About Unfinished Arab Spring

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Libyan military guards check one of the U.S. consulate's burnt-out buildings during a Sept. 14, 2012, visit by Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif (not shown) to express sympathy for the deaths of four diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. The Arabic on the building reads,
Libyan military guards check one of the U.S. consulate's burnt-out buildings during a Sept. 14, 2012, visit by Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif (not shown) to express sympathy for the deaths of four diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. The Arabic on the building reads, "God is Great, and there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger." (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

A timely new report from the nonprofit International Crisis Group warns that Libya's internal disarray poses a significant threat to the safety and security of the country during its post-Arab Spring transition to democracy. The report, released Friday, arrives on the heels of the devastating assault at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, that left four American diplomats dead, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

"There is, of course, more than one way to look at the country today: as one of the more encouraging Arab uprisings, recovering faster than expected; or as a country of regions and localities pulling in different directions, beset by intercommunal strife and where well-armed groups freely roam," the ICG report says of Libya.

One of those "well-armed groups," the Islamic militant organization Ansar al Sharia, is suspected of being behind Tuesday's attack on the consulate, which involved rocket-propelled grenades and lasted four hours.

In the U.S., the Libya attack -- and ongoing anti-American protests in Egypt and other Islamic countries -- has set off a round of very public political wrangling between the campaigns of Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. But in some pockets of the political world, another conversation has emerged, this one about the state of the still-evolving Arab Spring and what appears to be a spike in Islamic-fueled, anti-American violence across the region, even in a place like Benghazi, where the U.S. directly intervened to prevent a massacre during the revolution last year.

"Today, many Americans are asking -- indeed, I asked myself -- how could this happen?" said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during an emotional appearance at the State Department Wednesday morning to announce the deaths of her colleagues. "How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be."

For Clinton, as for key lawmakers like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the events are a clear sign of how important it is that the U.S. remain engaged in the region.

In a statement on Wednesday, the three senators said, “Despite this horrific attack, we cannot give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken. We cannot resign ourselves to the false belief that the Arab Spring is doomed to be defined not by the desire for democracy and freedom that has inspired millions of people to peaceful action, but by the dark fanaticism of terrorists."

But for many others analyzing the Arab Spring, "complicated" and "confounding" are the more enduring terms.

In Libya, as in Egypt and other places in the region undergoing fundamental transformations, the end of dictatorship has been a boon to freedom and civil society, but it is no panacea -- at least not yet, and not when viewed from near-term American interests.

"One of the other consequences [of the Arab Spring], now that societies are opening up, is that people can actually proselytize their interpretation of Islam," including the militant varieties, said Aaron Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who closely watches the spread of and discourse about Islamic radicalism. "It's happening across the whole region."

James Phillips, an expert with the Heritage Foundation who, for more than a year, has warned of the rising threat of militant Islam in places like Libya, sees the course of events much the same way: "On a policy level, I think it was a mistake to see the so-called Arab Spring as inevitably leading to democracy."

Certainly, security has diminished in much of the region. When the regime of Libya's dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, fell, as the ICG report notes, it brought down with it a major security apparatus and a powerful force against internal strife.

"Once the lid was removed, there was every reason to fear a free-for-all, as the myriad of armed groups that proliferated during the rebellion sought material advantage, political influence or, more simply, revenge," the report says.

Numerous other reports in the past year have made a similar point.

Human Rights Watch, which has closely reported on the decline in law and order in Libya over the past year, also commented that the attack in Benghazi "should be a wake-up call to the Libyan government on the need to rein in armed groups that have been defying the law in Libya."

Not all of the militias have necessarily worked against Libya's new government or the West. A curious detail in an Obama administration official's play-by-play of the assault on the Benghazi consulate included the moment, several hours into the battle, when a nearby militia described as "friendly to America" came to the aid of the beleaguered diplomatic security team.

But the rise of militias driven by Islamic fundamentalism has been a cause for concern dating back to the beginning of the uprising, when HuffPost reported that many outside observers worried about the role being played by dozens of anti-Gaddafi militia groups, many of whom had ties to jihadi groups that fought against the U.S. in places like Iraq.

Indeed, Libya, and particularly the areas around Benghazi, was home to a disproportionate number of the fighters who made up al Qaeda's foreign forces in places like Iraq, analysts say.

In a separate report last week, Human Rights Watch documented how many of the same jihadi fighters who had been considered terrorists, and tortured, by the U.S. -- before being turned over to the Gaddafi regime -- had since become American allies in the fight against his government.

Whether that means it was a mistake for the U.S. to side with these forces during the Libyan rebellion, or to have earlier helped suppress them, is perhaps the fundamental debate over U.S. policy in the changing region.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, argues that the role played by the U.S. in helping to remove Gaddafi has paid tremendous dividends in terms of popular support for the West.

"I don't think you can really use what happened [on Tuesday] to make a broader statement about how Libyans feel about the U.S. or to say that they're ungrateful," Hamid said. "It's certainly true that the Arabs don't like the U.S. pretty much everywhere else, but Libya is still the only country where they really like the U.S."

Indeed, across Benghazi on Wednesday, Libyans took to the streets to protest the attacks and offer public apologies for the death of an ambassador whom many activists had come to know personally. "Sorry Chris Benghazi couldn't save you," read one sign, held by a young man, that was widely circulated on Twitter.

"You have to be really careful" about inferring too much from the attacks, said Manal Omar, a Libya expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace who worked closely with revolutionary groups as they planned the post-Gaddafi transition to democracy.

"The other loss we've experienced today is a potential loss for Libya," Omar said. "Their track record has been very consistent for fighting against extremism. You really saw them consistently stand for a peaceful transition and promoting moderate Islam. This is the first blip in an otherwise positive track record."

Still, for some, the attacks have provided a small moment of reckoning about the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring.

In April last year, when Dan Murphy, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, traveled to the towns of eastern Libya, he found cause to hope that former jihadi fighters would embrace the U.S. for its support of their revolution. His article was titled, "Why the West need not fear Libya's Islamic warriors."

On Wednesday, Murphy linked to the story on Twitter and half-jokingly remarked, "Am I going to have to at some point pretend I didn't write this?"

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