What Went Wrong in Libya
And where do we go from here?


The underlying problem was not international law; it was an express ideological motivation — wanting the Libyans to keep full ownership of the revolution — and, unexpressed, a distaste in many U.S. circles for Western power and NATO. This is what led us to drag our heels. And it in turn caused the war to drag on another half-year, ensuring that the militias and jihadists would grow much more important.

3. Worst of all, we made haste to end the intervention when Qaddafi was killed, leaving the field to the militias. The National Transitional Council asked NATO to stay and help it clean up the stray weapons and militias. We refused.

There is a direct causal line from this refusal to the murder of our ambassador.



• It allowed free proliferation of the substantial cache of weapons left behind by the Qaddafi regime.

• It allowed proliferation of terrorist cells.

• It allowed the militias to entrench in chaotic conditions, instead of enabling the new government to rein them in. 

• It weakened the secular, pro-Western politicians and emboldened the Islamists. It enabled the Islamists to be the ones to attract the wavering elements into a coalition and select the prime minister — even though pro-Western secularists came out ahead of them in the elections.

These consequences were prompt and severe.

The chain of causation, from the NATO pullout to the Benghazi attack, was clear even before Fox unearthed its new information. Now, thanks partly to Fox, we can see that this causal line proceeds through a series of solid intervening points:

• The wish to depict the situation in Libya as “normal” and in line with the rest of the indigenous Arab Spring.

• The redefinition of “normal” in Libya, in the same sense the word was coming at the same time to have in Egypt: as an Islamist “normal,” requiring support for and appeasement of Muslim Brotherhood–type Islamists as the basic U.S. policy line. This may be worth a bit of elaboration. The Arab Spring events in Egypt and Tunisia had been welcomed by the Obama administration and the Western media with great enthusiasm: as democratic middle-class student revolutions, secular, nonviolent, untainted by Western involvement, and, most important, “rendering the Islamists irrelevant.” Yet these revolutions had, by the time of Qaddafi’s death, handed power not to secular liberals but to Islamist parties. This forced the administration and the American media to adapt their line. Journalists and policymakers alike shifted, with a stunning dearth of dissent or embarrassment, from celebrating the secular students to celebrating the moderate democratic method of the Islamists’ conquest of power, saying now that it was the terrorists who were being “rendered irrelevant.” The thrust of their narrative — a massively repeated narrative, which consisted of denouncing an imputed (but almost never heard) Western narrative of fear of Islam and support for the old regimes — remained invariant, as did the absence of foundation for its claims that our enemies were being “rendered irrelevant”; yet its actual logic was turned upside down, from marginalizing Islamism to mainstreaming it. It was thus that, by the time of Qaddafi’s fall, conformity to “moderate Islamism” had become available as the new normal to be sought in the region. The Libyan intervention, if done faster and more fully, and followed by an intervention in Syria, could have changed the strategic thrust of the Arab Spring, turning it away from anti-Westernism and Islamism; instead it was itself partly accommodated to the burgeoning Islamism.

• The refusal, accordingly, to let NATO honor the Libyan government’s request for it to continue its mission and help clean up the militias.

• The ready availability of militia and terrorist forces to attack our people in Benghazi.

• The readiness to think of the Benghazi attackers as essentially legitimate and needing appeasement, given the acceptance of the Islamist militias as part of the new normal, and the simultaneous effort to appease Islamist demonstrators in Egypt.

• The repeated deception, and self-deception, about the Benghazi incident’s being at root a reactive-defensive demonstration against American Islamophobia rather than an active aggressive attack. The emphasis on attacking American Islamophobia as the source of the evil amounted to joining in solidarity with the “demonstrators.”

This provides a new empirical confirmation for an observation by James Burnham half a century ago, in Suicide of the West: that the preferred enemy, the one that most Western elites like to sink their teeth into, is the West itself, or the Right. The sinking of teeth includes verbal attacks, and a penchant for coming up with tactics for the West that serve to undermine Western positions in the here and now in return for vague promises of gains later. The invariance of the attitude is striking, in the face of the profound shift in context, from a Communist adversary with which the Western Left had some ideological overlap to an Islamist adversary with which on the surface there is no overlap. Lewis Feuer’s solution to this conundrum was that anti-Westernism has psychological and in-group social motivations beneath the ideological ones among Western intellectuals.

• The repeated refusals to provide more security forces in advance to deter an attack.

• The repeated refusals to provide more forces in real time to respond to the attack. Details are still emerging on this; there are denials, mostly vague ones, but the main response has been to say that we were waiting, and had to wait, until the situation was clear. Since the situation is never clear in the midst of battle, this is equivalent to saying: Wait out every battle until it is lost.

This chain of events makes clear that the failure to provide protection was something far more than a scandal of personal incompetence and malfeasance. There has indeed been incompetence and malfeasance, but it has been motivated by a policy. A policy that continues, and that needs the further dissimulation to insulate itself from reconsideration — and from electoral defeat.

Whether the insulation will succeed is another matter. The vehicles of national discourse are mostly unready for reasoned reconsideration. That leaves electoral defeat as the vehicle available to the American people to correct the policy.


Ambivalence in an intervention is a dangerous thing. True realism is to make a choice and act on it as clearly as one can. One should know the ambiguities while making the decision, not linger on them in the implementation. If something is worth doing, then it’s worth doing right. So taught Niebuhr; so taught all the Realists. It is a moral point they were making. Realism is not always moral, but unrealism is always immoral.

Behind the excessive self-limitation of the NATO intervention, one can find traces of the old animus in the Western Left against Western imperialism, and against NATO as the embodiment of the united West. The extent of anti-NATO attitudes among elites became apparent in the plethora of calls for disbanding NATO that were heard just after NATO won the war. Imagine if it had lost, as it may soon be blamed for doing in Afghanistan!