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


The “moderation” of the Muslim Brotherhood became an article of faith. Faith was indeed needed, as the evidence was lacking. We were warned that the Islamists aren’t necessarily our enemies but will become enemies if we don’t embrace their democratic victories. Self-blackmail is already part of the new normal in our relation with Islamism. The fear of alienating the Islamist “moderates” was a decisive factor in leading to a policy of repeated expressions of regret about a private video. Since it is not admitted that these were apologies, they should perhaps be called “subliminal apologies.” In subliminal messages, everyone gets the point, yet it is kept hidden; the words operate on two different levels, logical and psychological — an explicit affirmation, coupled with a thinly veiled threat of harm to anyone who denies the affirmation. The subliminal apologies have operated the same way: orienting people by affirming something like a faith community of their own, while demonizing any expressions skeptical of it. Attention to contrary facts is excluded en passant. Reality gets lost.



Some Republicans also conflate Egypt and Libya, in a language with isolationist overtones, as places where we should simply stay out and not be interfering — except to strike back when hit. The result: We get pressure in both parties for retaliatory strikes on the friendly country, Libya.

Neither party has had an adequate discourse that deals with the reality of the two cases. The administration’s discourse is the one farther from reality. It goes beyond equating the Libyan case with the Egyptian; between the two, it gives its stronger support to the Egyptian government.

In this, it turns the reality upside down, favoring foes over friends. This repeats its earlier pattern of being slower to condemn and demand removal of our old foe Qaddafi than our old friend Mubarak. It is being still slower with our continuing foe, Assad. For a long time it argued that it would be dangerous to depose Qaddafi; it is still encouraging such argumentation to the benefit of Assad. But with our friend Mubarak, it argued that what would be dangerous would be to fail to get rid of him.

It is a pattern of inversion: discriminating on behalf of foes as opposed to friends, acting opposite to our self-interest — and opposite to morality. This pattern has come surprisingly close to being carried out consistently in the Mideast in the last two years, despite the chaotic conditions and contradictory considerations in the region. It can be explained only by a bias in the mentality of administration officials, a bias that leads some people, today as in the Carter years, to feel morally good about hitting our friends and morally bad about hitting our foes.

A clue to this mentality was seen in the widespread comment on the need to give the Libyan rebels full ownership of the revolution even when there is Western intervention; the subtext was, in the words of the PBS Newshour, to save the “magic” of the Arab Spring (meaning, evidently, to avoid sullying it with the dirty hands of Western power). Another clue was given in the concern expressed by Hillary Clinton that the intervention not serve also our own self-interest, lest it leave the administration vulnerable to al-Jazeera–type accusations of having a (normal commonsense) double standard in our own favor. There has been no comparable sensitivity about avoiding our actual double standard — the one that has operated against ourselves and our friends.

We urgently need a language that starts from the premise of affirming our strategic interests as the bedrock of our moral interests. And that deals with the actual situation in Libya. And in Egypt.

And in Syria. There, if we finally do the right thing and intervene – yet fail to change our leaders’ premises — we stand to repeat our mistakes and again bungle the victory.

— Ira Straus is executive director of The Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility.