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Backgrounder on Libya by John Ford

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This is a guest post by John Ford.  He previously contributed a series of posts on Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Burma, and Singapore.  He can be found on twitter at @johndouglasford.


With Congress about to begin hearings investigating the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, this is a good time to look at the situation in Libya.  While there are some facts we don’t know about what happened in Benghazi 18 months ago we do know that what happened there was not an isolated incident.  It was just the most high profile example of Libya’s descent towards becoming a failed state.

This tragic reality is due in no small part to the fact that the United States launched a drive-by intervention in 2011, toppling the Libyan government and then doing nothing at all to help the new government in Tripoli secure control of the country.

Last year, I wrote an eight part series for this site on foreign policy, profiling eight countries that I think are important to US foreign policy but that get little media attention.  One of the themes of that series is that failed states and weak states are breeding grounds for terrorist activity.   Libya is a prime example of this phenomenon.  The attack on Benghazi was only possible because our neglect has turned Libya into the political equivalent of a dumpster fire with militias in control of large swathes of the country.  This chaos is what allowed a terrorist group to launch an attack on a US Consulate that killed four Americans without facing any serious consequences.

The chaos does not end with the attack on Benghazi.  In the Spring of 2013 a militia in Tripoli was able to take over the headquarters of the Libyan Ministry of Justice.  Around that same time Libya’s then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan came to Washington begging for aid, saying that government officials could not even safely hold a meeting anymore because the country was so chaotic.  Zeidan was absolutely right about the threat to public officials.  Three months ago Libya’s first post-Qadaffi Prosecutor General was assassinated by militia members.  Zeidan himself was kidnapped during his term in office by armed gunmen before being released.  Zeidan is now out as Prime Minister because he was unable to stop a militia from stealing and oil tanker and filling it with crude for export on the black market.

This past winter the militias appeared to be weakening and in some cities they were driven out by civilian protests.  This did not, however, lead to stability.  The government was too weak to step into the void.  The retreat of militias only increased the chaos. [Embed link:]  The Libyan government is literally so weak that in many places the militias are the only government.  The safest large city in the country is Misrata, which is dominated by the country’s largest militia.  The Misrata Militia is able to maintain some semblance of law and order and create a safer environment than exists in areas under the control of the fledgling government.

Not that the Libyan government is run by angels.  Shortly after the Libyan parliament passed a law criminalizing criticism of government officials and put a journalist on trial for exposing the fact that judges in the country were taking bribes Amnesty International reported that “mounting curbs on freedom of expression are threatening the rights Libyans sought to gain”.  A few days ago Libya elected its sixth Prime Minister in less than three years.  Libya’s first post-Qadaffi Prime Minister was a pro-western professor of economics.  Its new Prime Minister, Ahmed Matieg, has close ties to the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.  This is progress in the wrong direction.  Things are so bad that Eli Lake of the Daily beast is reporting that Libya is “Scumbag Woodstock”.

Or maybe Libya didn’t elect its sixth Prime Minister after all.  The country is so chaotic that no one can seem to agree on whether Ahmed Matieg actually got enough votes to win the office.

It did not have to end this way.  If the western countries who intervened in Libya had taken as much interest in the hard work of state building as they took in the drama of toppling Qadaffi a different outcome could have been obtained.  For example, if NATO had contributed to training a Libyan security force that could have stood up to the militias perhaps Libya would not now be a borderline failed state.  But it was only in December that the US actually announced that it would start training Libyan security forces (We promised to train a paltry 6,000 soldiers) and it was only March of this year that the first trainers arrived in Libya.

Only now, three years after the fall of Qadaffi, is the United States making any effort to support the government in Tripoli and to keep it from collapsing.  This is a stunning failure of vision and leadership.  It does not appear that any senior person in the US government, up to and including President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, fully grasped the danger that was created by ignoring Libya’s descent into anarchy.  The real foreign policy scandal is not the attack on our consulate, tragic though it was.  The real scandal is the foreign policy disaster we have made for ourselves in North Africa.

After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan Charlie Wilson, the famous and infamous Congressman who was the great advocate of the Mujahedeen said of the victory over the Soviet Empire, ““These things happened, they were glorious, and they changed the world… and then we screwed up the end game.”  America has an unfortunate history of winning the war and losing the peace.  In Libya, this history is repeating itself.


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