Politics & Policy

What Went Wrong in Libya

And where do we go from here?

Benghazi has been the loudest specific foreign-policy difference of the campaign, and it keeps getting more serious.

The administration’s line on Benghazi has been plainly false. John McCain has called it worse than Watergate. He is right. Basic executive-branch responsibilities have been neglected. Deaths have resulted.

The information developed last week by Fox News correspondents, indicating repeated refusals of real-time help for our besieged people in Benghazi, adds a new dimension to the issue. Critics now speak of mistakes and mendacities before, during, and after the attack. In this panoramic context, we see a pattern: pre-attack negligence and reticence, in-attack negligence and reticence, post-attack mendacity. And, going further back, we can find pre-intervention reticence as well. And intra-intervention reticence. A continuous syndrome over months and years, one that indicates a continuous motivating cause, not a mistake in the sense of an accident.

And yet, despite the gravity of its mistakes and the depths of the policy problems they indicate, the administration may yet get away with it and muddle through.

The main reason for this paradoxical situation is no doubt the media’s handling of the issue, not inadequacies in the criticism. To be sure, the criticism has had defects, but the argumentation on the Obama side has been even more defective. It is the media that have made the difference, describing the criticism as “simplistic,” “misleading,” “mean-spirited,” and “politically motivated.” When Candy Crowley interposed with an inaccurate “fact check” against Romney on Benghazi, she raised the media’s role to a new level. Her comment shielded the president from truthful correction. It was, arguably, the big lie of the campaign, and became for a moment a scandal of its own – for the media.

Thus far the media have been able to shield themselves and Ms. Crowley, as they have shielded the president. The criticism of Obama has been confined to simplified sound bites. And simplified sound bites can always be easily analyzed away, by those who have the benefit of analyzing at length in the public space, as “simplistic.”

Romney has been basically correct in his criticisms of the administration on Libya, but the problems in the Obama policy are both more thoroughgoing and more subtle than Romney has brought out. They need to be brought out, in order to get the current debate right as to who can be entrusted with the presidency. And in order to get the implications right for future policy. 


The Libyan intervention yielded what is probably the only genuinely friendly country — meaning the government plus the people — that we can find in the Arab world. Yet by now we know that it was significantly bungled. What did we do wrong?

Three things. All three gave the initiative to jihadists and Islamists. And the three have the same common denominator: we did not lead from behind (leading from behind is a skillful diplomatic policy, to the extent it is feasible and is actually done); instead, we confounded our own cause from behind.

1. We delayed the intervention for months, resisting Anglo-French pressures to act, letting militias and jihadists move into the vacuum. This created the very dangers that Secretary Clinton and D.C. think tanks were invoking at the time as reasons for inaction.

It is a mistake we are repeating in Syria.

2. We intervened on a hands-tied basis. France initially acted unilaterally, jumping the gun on the agreed intervention, evading our restrictions. After our role began, we were in some cases slow, begrudging, and incomplete in providing the (quite inexpensive) military support we owed our allies. Instead of seizing the opportunity to consolidate pro-Alliance sentiment, on this remarkable occasion when France and Britain were taking the lead, we undermined the sentiment. Security Council restrictions were also a problem, to be sure; but Britain and France, in the longstanding tradition of great powers, found ways to stretch the resolution and give good explanations for why they had to do this, in the light of the contradictions of the relevant international laws.

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!

No one among our publicists and politicians criticized the mistake of withdrawing NATO so hastily – an obvious and glaring mistake. This is the source of our current failure to diagnose accurately what has gone right and wrong in Libya. Our discourse on Libya has excluded this central causal point ever since the moment of victory.

In Iraq, our publicists, with near-unanimity, pummeled the Bush administration for failing to take responsibility for public order after it toppled the Saddam Hussein regime. This was accurate, constructive criticism; a costly surge was needed to correct the mistake. But it turns out that it was partisan ideological hostility that motivated the accurate criticism. The same mistake was repeated in Libya, in still cruder form, without any criticism of Obama for it.

We cannot do a consistent intervention when our leaders are at best only half in favor of the role of our power in the world, and when their ideological base habitually blames our power for the ills of the world. We end up hedging against our own intervention, littering it with contradictions.


There was another twist to our limitations during the intervention and our haste to get out. We sought Russia’s consent and Security Council consensus. This was worth a lot. But not only did we do it when necessary, yielding a resolution with a mandate that enabled the British and French governments to decide to go to war but that also contained self-contradictory inadequacies. We also proceeded to vote alongside Russia to end the mandate and cut the NATO intervention short.

These were genuine instances of “outsourcing” our foreign policy to the U.N. and to Russia, as the Romney campaign has put it.

This point should not be understood as meaning that it was wrong to get a U.N. mandate, or to get cooperation from Russia. These were exceedingly valuable. Obama deserves credit for doing the work to get them on board in Libya, as did Bush in Afghanistan.

It does, however, mean that we need to be realistic about both. Russia’s attitudes on cooperation with us are self-contradictory at best. Security Council mandates are bound to have self-contradictory aspects as long as this remains the case. We have to take our own counsel on how to deal with the contradictions.

We were hoping to limit the hostile reaction in Russia by terminating the intervention hastily. It didn’t work.

We got blamed anyway, in the mainstream Russian discourse, for the chaotic consequences of the constraints and the termination — consequences that seemed to validate the objections Russia had made against intervening in the first place, if one ignored the causal sequence. Russians came to say, with the kind of unanimity that protects people from noticing their own illogic, that those consequences proved the intervention was a mistake and that they should never again acquiesce in a NATO intervention. The Russian elite blamed us for “tricking” it in order to get its consent in the Security Council for a Libya intervention that inevitably went beyond the U.N. resolution. Some Russian analysts have argued that, today, Putin would rather the West intervened unilaterally in Syria than drag him along on this, too. It would let him wash his hands of it. And, from a Western standpoint, it would let us be more consistent.

Russia is not, regrettably, the only country with an insistent unanimity in its more foolish lines of discourse. There is an insistent unanimity in American discourse that has shielded us from noticing the extent, and the illogic, of our support for the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and for the Muslim Brotherhood parties in these countries; it has allowed most of our officials and journalists to criticize themselves only for not supporting the revolution and the Brotherhood even more. Russia, in regretting these two revolutions, has sided with Western interests better than our own government. There would be space for a more serious dialogue with Russia on the rest of the Mideast, if we had an administration capable of recognizing that we have been wrong on Egypt.


After the attack and murders at our consulate, mass demonstrations ensued in Libya — against the Islamists and militias, not against us. The Islamist-backed prime minister resigned. This gave us a second chance: a chance once again, as in the days after Qaddafi fell, to help move the balance of Libya in the direction we want.

We have been wasting this chance, like the first one. Our inadequate discourse on the issue is reducing the matter instead to one of how to retaliate. This is missing the real point: to make strategic good of the turn of events. Condoleezza Rice had the presence of mind after the terrible events of September 11, 2001, to tell her aides that they needed to look for ways to make strategic good of the situation. This common sense is mostly lacking today.

On Egypt, too, we have inadequate policies kept in place by an inadequate discourse. Both Republicans and Democrats speak only of drawing lines to prevent the Islamist Morsi government from going too far out on a limb with things we don’t like – such as egging on terrorists, or starting another war with Israel, or oppressing women and Christians. In this way, our political leaders would actually help the Islamist government consolidate power: America would make itself useful to Morsi as a balance against the impulses from his base to commit adventuristic mistakes early on, giving him time to build Brotherhood hegemony throughout the societal and power structures of Egypt. There is no discussion of how we could support the few surviving balancing forces and institutions in the country, the only forces that can limit Morsi’s consolidation of power. Yet it is the Islamist consolidation of power that is the big danger, the one that can do massive damage for decades to come to our ideals — and to our peace and security.

In Libya there was an anti-government attack on our consulate. In Egypt there was a pro-government riot against our embassy.

In Libya we face a majority-friendly populace and a friendly government. In Egypt we face a largely hostile majority, and a government with a hostile ideology but one that is still consolidating itself and receiving massive aid from us as a legacy ally. It is a government with a deep-rooted movement base, the Muslim Brotherhood. That movement in turn has a well-elaborated ideology that blames the West for the ills of the world. And it helped organize the riots against our embassy.

The main reason for the difference is simple. For decades, Libyans, like Syrians and Iranians, have suffered under a brutal anti-Western Islamist ideological dictatorship. They have had their fill of anti-Western ideological intoxication; they know the harm it has brought them. Moderate, pro-Western Muslims are a majority, genuine Islamists a minority. Egyptians suffered the opposite: decades of mediocre, gradual progress under a mild pro-Western authoritarian government, one bereft of ideological enthusiasms to dignify its corruption and hide the depressing aspects of life under it. This leaves Egyptians vulnerable to blaming the West for everything wrong and seeking new ideological enthusiasms, naturally of the anti-Western type. Some of those are leftist in the old-fashioned way. Others are Islamist, yet use an algebraic formula strikingly similar to those of the Marxist and fascist ideologies of the 20th century: The modern world, despite all its technical accomplishments, is decadent at the core, thanks to the disintegrative individualism of the West; a higher synthesis is needed to save the world. This synthesis can be supplied only by a non-Western society (or non-bourgeois class) that has not lost its roots in organic unity; it can regenerate those roots through faith.

In the light of this difference, it makes some sense for us to be helping in the overthrow of vicious and hostile governments in the Mideast, but it made no sense for the Obama administration to be helping in the overthrow of mild and friendly governments. 

It is to the Egyptian government that a logical America, one serious about its interests and ideals, would be applying strong pressures and considering what it can do to help the opposition. With the Libyan government, we would be strategizing together as friends and working on joint plans of action against the forces of chaos that we have left behind in the country.

The two cases are not just different. They are opposite.

Yet they are treated as virtually the same by the Obama administration, posing the same need to avoid inflaming the Islamist extremists lest they undermine the ability of the moderate Islamists to cooperate with us. This is the main reason why the administration tried to believe, and told itself at the highest levels, that the attack on our consulate in Libya was a popular riot continuous with the riots in Egypt – and blamable on an anti-Islamic video. The strategic line of relying on the Muslim Brotherhood “moderates” was the decisive factor in impelling the administration to deceive itself, and the country with it.

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. 


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