10/23/2013 01:35 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Liberated Libya at 2: Three Big Questions to Answer Before Future Interventions

Two years since we succeeded in helping depose longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, things are not looking very rosy in liberated Libya. In fact, anything but stable Libya, flooded with weapons and still without a constitution, with remarkably little progress since the fighting ended, may be on the verge of civil war.

It was two years ago today, on October 23rd, that the Libyan National Transitional Council declared "the liberation of Libya" after victory in the civil war and the complete ouster of the decades-long Gaddafi regime, Gaddafi himself having been caught and killed a few days earlier. The dictator, once the darling of elements of the the far left in the West, his post-Che charisma having long since devolved into an occasionally charming eccentricity, had reacted with murderous alacrity to the emergence of Arab Spring protests in his country.

I supported the limited U.S. intervention in Libya, when sophisticated U.S. air and communication assets were needed to help the UN-endorsed alliance of Western and Arab nations, spearheaded by France and the UK, in their air strikes campaign to enable Libyan rebels to take down the Gaddafi regime. I would still support the decision again, taken as it was with Gaddafi vowing to massacre his Arab Spring protest opponents the very next day even as the UN Security Council debated authorizing action against him. No Americans were killed or even wounded in the war, which cost the U.S. only budget dust, perhaps no more than a billion dollars.

That said, things have happened since that have to be addressed before we contemplate even this sort of limited intervention, much less a full-fledged intervention, in the future. For after a decent enough beginning in which then mostly pro-American Libyans welcomed the popular wartime special envoy Chris Stevens as our new ambassador, with Stevens frequently spending time out in the countryside essentially on his own, things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

We saw it, of course, with Stevens's own assassination on 2012's anniversary of 9/11, along with the killings of three other Americans on that still mystery-shrouded night in Benghazi. We've seen it with repeated reports of open jihadist activities, factional fighting between rival militias superseding efforts to create a functioning, unified national government, and a slashing of oil exports. Libyan oil production, running at only one-eighth normal capacity much of the year, is still less than half what it was before the uprising and civil war.

And of course we're seeing it even more dramatically than in the past with the hours-long abduction of Libya's prime minister in response to a U.S. special ops raid a couple weeks ago in Tripoli, followed by the assassination of a top security official and open skirmishing between rival factions with varying degrees of loyalty to elements of the rickety Libyan government.

Several unfortunate themes have arisen in the wake of Libya's liberation into what turns out to be impending chaos.


Dozens of nations came together in March 2011 to help get rid of the Gaddafi regime and remake Libya, with the "Friends of Libya" (prefiguring the later Friends of Syria) forming a new international "contact group," gathering in various European and Arab capitals, seeming a template for future righteous action.

"I think this is a watershed moment in international decision making," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared. "We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda. It took a long time in the Balkans, in Kosovo to deal with a tyrant. But I think -- and what has happened since March 1st -- and we're not even done with the month -- demonstrates really remarkable leadership."

But once Gaddafi was gone, the Western world moved on.

Let's keep in mind it was actually several European and Arab powers who insisted on intervening. Obama finally decided to "lead from behind" as the notorious saying went.

What are the French doing? They pushed the hardest for the intervention in general, and American involvement in specific? Then moderate conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy made sure that the first air strikes were French. While current French President Francois Hollande is a Socialist, he hasn't been loathe to involve French forces elsewhere in Africa, as we see in what looks so far to have been a successful anti-jihadist intervention in Mali. And he has been quick to urge U.S. intervention in another, even more troubled situation, that of Syria.

What are the Brits doing? Prime Minister David Cameron pushed second hardest for Western intervention in Libya. And he pushed hardest of all, at least among European powers -- the Saudis may have been the biggest (and now angriest) advocates in private, another new geopolitical complication -- in pushing for intervention in Syria.

Now the commander of Libya's military police has been assassinated, and, with fighting between factions, the nation may be in the early stages of of civil war.

NATO early in the week authorized a small defense mission to advise the embattled government. Um, why didn't they already have such a basic program?


All actions have consequences and the possibility that something might go wrong shouldn't be used as a blanket excuse to do nothing. But considering counter-moves to our moves is key. Our recent Delta Force capture of a ranking Al Qaeda figure, snatched off the street in Tripoli, triggered the abduction of the Libyan prime minister a few days later after U.S. officials said the Libyan government had known of the op in advance.

After the successful U.S. Delta Force raid and snatch off a Tripoli street of an Al Qaeda leader indicted for helping bomb U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the rickety Libyan government, which had done nothing about the guy openly operating in its capital, protested and said it didn't know of the raid. But Secretary of State John Kerry says they did know.

Helpful of Kerry and others to say that, since the statements were used as a rationale for the hours-long abduction a few days after the special ops raid of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. After being taken from his hotel residence by more than a hundred armed men in the middle of the night, he was returned in the afternoon after some murky faction to faction communications.

Then came the assassination of the military police commander.

What this points up is that we are still struggling with moves in territory we've been involved with for a long time. Libya has been a well-known trouble sport for America throughout my entire adult life. In fact, it goes back to the very earliest days of the United States.

The Adamses had wanted a deep water navy to begin with, but Thomas Jefferson did not, instead seeking to avoid foreign entanglements and rely on coastal defense craft and forces. But, infuriated by the young country having to endure depredations against its merchant ships by the so-called Barbary Pirates, the Muslim powers of the Barbary Coast, for which the standing solution was to shell out a large fraction of the federal treasury in tribute payments, Jefferson changed his mind. The much-touted anti-interventionist launched America's first foreign wars, complete with the beginnings of a real navy and the country's first foreign invasion, spearheaded by U.S. Marines -- hence "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli" as the opening line in the Marines' Hymn, the oldest official song in the U.S. Armed Forces.

That's something to think hard about, especially when some are saying much of the rest of Africa, with which we are far less familiar, will be the big new front on the war on terror.


Just over two months ago, and just before Obama declared a still murky global terror alert, we learned that there were far more U.S. personnel engaged on the ground in Benghazi on 9/11/12.

A CNN report that there were some 35 previously unreported CIA agents involved in the fighting on the ground during the Benghazi disaster of 9/11/12. Apparently seven more people were wounded, some very seriously, than previously revealed.

CNN and others also reported that the surviving CIA agents are being pressured to keep quiet, and especially to avoid talking to any journalists or anyone from Congress, with repeated polygraph tests to enforce the prohibitions.

This is like a re-edited movie with a lot more characters, not to mention a different plot. CIA involvement in Benghazi, where we already knew its personnel dwarfed those of the State Department, which actually had no proper consulate there -- the "diplomatic mission" was really more a CIA operational center -- has always been the big imponderable of the controversy. But very little was forthcoming.

What were they doing there? Hard to say with any precision. Rumors have circulated for a long time that there was an arms transfer underway to the Syrian rebels involving weapons, perhaps missiles, from Gaddafi's vast stores. But that could be wrong.

There have also been rumors that jihadists were angry about targeted kill missions against their cadre.

Of course, those things could all be wrong.

One thing that is clear is that, whatever was really going on at the time of the Benghazi disaster, it didn't take place as part of a protest against a California-produced hate-Islam "movie."

Until we can answer these fundamental questions -- Why did the much ballyhooed model for humanitarian intervention evaporate so quickly? How do we improve our thinking about chains of reaction to our actions? What went on in Benghazi on that fateful 9/11 anniversary night? -- we'll simply be flying blind when it comes to questions of future intervention.

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