February 15, 2018, will mark the seventh anniversary of the Benghazi rallies, in which Libyans took to the streets to protest the arrest of a human rights lawyer. Fueled by the success of demonstrators in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, the crowds also demanded the release of political prisoners and an end to Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule.
Pro-government rallies failed to quell the unrest and in the ensuing crackdown, Gadhafi’s military attacked protestors with tanks, artillery, aircraft and helicopter gunships. But the entropy was unstoppable.
Soon Libyan pilots were landing their jets in Malta, and Libyan embassies began to fly the flag of King Idris, overthrown by Gadhafi and his fellow Free Officers in 1969. Violence built on violence and by March, NATO forces went in to protect the rebel government and Libyan civilians from what was believed to be their inevitable slaughter at the hands of a desperate Libyan military.
Washington famously chose to lead “from behind.” It was wary of another Iraq, and viewed Libya as a European problem in which victory could be achieved with limited U.S. support. At first, all went well and the policy was heralded a success. Gadhafi’s regime collapsed and the dictator was executed on 20 October.
But rebel victory did not bring peace and prosperity, only more violence, heavily armed militias and tribal fragmentation. The tragic and heroic deaths of American diplomats and CIA personnel in September 2012 in Benghazi underscored the futility of our intervention and was used in a distasteful political blame game in Washington. What began as a laudable effort to prevent a humanitarian disaster became a political circus.
The good news is that Western political engagement in Libya helped prevent it from becoming another charnel house. Its battered economy and political system have somehow survived, and in January, the country produced more than a million barrels of oil per day, its highest production since July 2013. Yet, save for oil executives, Middle East analysts, and those charged by the UN with knitting the country together and ending its role as a deadly transit station for migrants, events in the country receive little interest.
But it remains wise to use this anniversary to consider the lessons of the Libyan and other regional interventions. Aside from the economic oases in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the problems of the Middle East are ominously similar to those seen in the days before the Arab Spring. Economies are anemic and governments are rarely viewed by their own people as either efficient or representative. Labor and economic protests seem increasingly routine throughout a region in which social media has become a rudderless and unpredictable organizational force. It is ironic that whereas the region’s strongmen fell quickly in the Arab Spring, authoritarian leadership seems to thrive in the pervasive economic and political malaise found from North Africa to Iran.
It is now generally accepted that any intervention or non-intervention in the catastrophes of the Middle East seem to inevitably lead to the same point: a failed state; a humanitarian disaster; a quagmire or foothold for our adversaries; and fodder for domestic political infighting. Consider the U.S. role in regional conflicts in the last two decades:
Afghanistan and Iraq: full U.S. Intervention in which we lead a coalition of partners. The achievements of these conflicts were significant. The war in Afghanistan destroyed a terrorist state which allowed al-Qaida to attack American soil while it allowed camps which groomed thousands of jihadists. The 2003 Iraq war rid the region of the monstrous Saddam regime and likely played a large role convincing Iran to rid itself of its nuclear weapons program.
In each case, our military victory was swift (if costly in terms of blood and treasure) and our forces greeted as liberators. But restoration of national government by local politicians proved extraordinarily difficult as sectarian, tribal and local forces overcame an interest in national compromise. After more than a decade of tenacious work by our diplomats and military personnel, Iraq has survived civil conflict, the bloody rise and fall of Da’ish (ISIS), and the omnipresence (and some worry eventual omnipotence) of Iran in its politics. With similar U.S. support, the Afghan government has endured despite endless Taliban attacks and an inability to hold territory its military wrests from the Taliban’s grasp. Kabul’s ability to survive following a U.S. withdrawal is years from being a realistic likelihood.
Libya and Yemen: U.S. support of third countries who themselves lead an intervention. Libya stands out as a clear example of this policy, but the current Yemen conflict speaks to this as well. In each case, Washington chose to limit involvement to logistics and special forces support, deferring to other actors to carry the conflict. In each case, initial campaign goals were achieved, but once more, national governance in either country remains elusive while the world focuses on the humanitarian disasters endemic to each conflict. Withdrawal for foreign military actors or political support in either conflict would invite dark militias to power, as well as provide Da’ish, al-Qaida, and Iran (via Yemen), with new bases from which to attack the West.
Syria: Non-intervention. While focusing smartly on the destruction of Da’ish, Washington dithered over the extent it should support Syrian oppositionists, the seriousness of its efforts to remove Syrian leader Bashar Assad and block Iran and Russian machinations in what had become a failed state. This policy approach did achieve two objectives: the U.S. avoided being sucked into another costly quagmire and focused on Iraq and the eradication of the so-called Islamic Caliphate. However, the humanitarian cost of this plan has been extraordinary, and the Syrian people will take generations to recover. Further, a war criminal who repeatedly used chemical weapons on his own people appears likely to survive, an example which will be a lesson to other dictators. Russia has used the conflict to pretend that it remains a global power and Iran’s presence and actions in Syria have likely laid the foundation for the next regional conflict.
Perhaps the most important reason to consider what we can learn from these conflicts is that no one would be surprised if a similar event occurred in the region once more. So other than “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” what does the above lamentation suggest?
We cannot remind ourselves too often that while it is easy to break something, putting it together is impossible and we own the mess. This is no surprise. Every country invests in a military, but nation-building is a capacity no country or international institution has the architecture, interest or resources to undertake. Yet marshalling a basic effort needs to be done as aggressively as our persecution of any conflict.
Any decision or lack of decision we make will have long-term and expensive secondary consequences we will not be able to foresee. It is easy to say that policies need to be based on core national interests, but these are rarely clear. Policy makers need to do a better job explaining this to the American people early in any conflict and then repeat the message regularly thereafter.
Political solutions to any conflict must be local solutions and in the absence of same, chaos will only be held back by an increasingly unpopular military occupation. We cannot understand the path to these solutions without deep expertise which takes years to develop. The time to build that expertise in our foreign service, military, and intelligence communities is now. We should also do what we can to foster this expertise in our universities and think tanks upon whom policy makers will inevitably rely, if only to ensure that our policies don’t suffer from group think.
We won’t be the only players in the field and our actions need to deter the exploitation of conflicts by our adversaries as well as our friends. The history of the past 20 years has repeatedly shown that Iran has used regional conflicts to expand its darkest influence. The desire to use these conflicts to build bridges to seemingly-reasonable elements in Iran or Pakistan prevented us from setting boundaries on their behavior with terrible consequences as much as our concern that confronting these parties would invite a new conflict. In fairness, those involved in such efforts did so to exploit what they saw to be a historic opportunity or to acquire information which might reduce the risk faced by our forces. Last, in conflicts where the U.S. is a supporting partner, we also need to take steps to minimize incidents where allies support different sides of a conflict.
Perhaps the hardest aspect of this process is to recognize that our actions will one day be judged by History. Do we want to be a nation which allows a dictator to use chemical weapons on his own people or millions to be displaced in a conflict? It is easy to say no, but this is a difficult decision when doing so involves U.S. lives and treasure in a world where other countries are content to stand by.