International politics are shaped by two colliding realities: the perceived reality and the physical reality.
Take Libya. This weekend, social media were flooded with videos and photos of a U.S. Embassy residential annex in Tripoli. Islamist militiamen were shown partying in the pool and exploring the compound.
The perceived reality is that terrorists have conquered another American facility in Libya and that, two years after the Benghazi attack, American diplomats remain deeply vulnerable.
However, the physical reality is that U.S. diplomats were evacuated from Libya more than a month ago. In fact, the annex had been left to a Libyan government security force — who then abandoned it. While the Benghazi attackers in 2012 were from the Libyan Ansar al-Sharia, the annex is now “secured” by the Libyan Dawn Movement. Libyan Dawn embraces an Islamist-populist revolutionary ideology, whereas Ansar al-Sharia is defined by Salafi-jihadist fervor. And perhaps for that reason, the annex remains in reasonable condition.
Unfortunately, in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), perception drives reality. That makes this seizure a wake-up call for America. For those who hate America, the images of jihadists swimming in the compound’s pool will induce great joy. Driven by their zeal, jihadists see this kind of footage as proof that God supports them. It’s because jihadists believe in an omnipotent God who supports and justifies their every action that they are so intolerant of criticism and so gleeful about death. It’s likely that this incident in Tripoli will inspire them to new endeavors.
And that’s a major problem. After all, in Libya, the Islamist rebel alliance holds the initiative. Rampaging through Tripoli and degrading the already-paper-thin institutions of the Libyan state, the Islamists are leaving a failed state in their wake. Where Qaddafi retained authority by co-opting Libya’s diverse ethnic and tribal groups into his authoritarian rule, his downfall has led to a resurgence of tribal allegiances. It’s now, indisputably, a utopia for fanatics. And unless the United States restrains this madness, we can expect another disaster in the style of the Islamic State.
It’s not only immediate security in Libya that we need urgently to address. We must think strategically about the broader Middle East. The United Arab Emirates, with Egypt’s support, is now conducting air strikes against Islamist rebels in Libya — and they are doing so while the Obama administration dithers and ducks. At the same time, Turkey and Qatar are supporting the Islamists. This violent fragmentation of Middle Eastern politics, in which large powers wage war by proxy, is catastrophic. Absent American influence, regional actors are pursuing increasingly unpredictable strategies. As I’ve explained before, when America neglects our ability to build partnerships and act as an interlocutor, MENA descends into dangerous paranoia.
Nevertheless, we do have some cause for hope. With so many American allies already engaged in Libya, President Obama — if he acts — can help build a cohesive strategy that balances cross-sectarian interests. When practiced intelligently, American diplomatic power can still have a significant impact. Consider that Hamas’s cease-fire acceptance stemmed from the pressure the United States exerted on the Bank of Hamas (a.k.a. Qatar). While re-engaging in Libya won’t require direct American military power — beyond the Special Forces operations already under way — it will require realistic expectations and objectives. We must avoid a military takeover that would fuel jihadists over the long term (so we don’t usher in a Salafist Spring), but we must also counter terrorist threats. In that regard, recognizing America’s limited public appetite for foreign entanglement, we must help Libya establish a communal government that balances the interests of politically diverse groups so that the country can attain a modicum of stability.
In short, we must help Libya become an imperfect but non-failed state — a state like Lebanon rather than Syria.