National Security & Defense

As ISIS Expands, President Obama Gets Libya Wrong

(Pete Souza/White House/Flickr)
His real mistake was entering the conflict in the first place.

In 2003 the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein in hopes of bringing democracy to Iraq. Instead a power vacuum was created, into which moved thousands of fundamentalist Sunnis from across the Middle East. Many of them rallied around the banner of al-Qaeda in Iraq, today known as the Islamic State, which went on to roil the region with terrorism.

In 2011, the United States overthrew Moammar Qaddafi with the goal of ending his autocratic and flamboyant reign over Libya. Once again, a power vacuum was ripped open, and once again, it became a bug-light for jihadists. That included the powerful Islamic State, which today controls a 120-mile stretch of the oil-rich Libyan coastline.

Libya is different from Iraq, of course, most notably in its lack of a sectarian divide. But the similarities between the two are striking. That’s why it was so puzzling to hear President Obama tell Fox News earlier this week that his worst mistake as president was “failing to plan for the day after” in Libya — not ordering the intervention in the first place, which he said “was the right thing to do.”

We’re left to infer that the White House believes Libya’s tumult might have been avoided, ISIS might have never come calling, and the country might not have come apart at the seams if only they’d prepared more rigorously. The problem is that we already know what an aftermath with more American involvement looks like: Iraq after Saddam Hussein. “As long as the United States is in Iraq,” Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution wrote in 2007, al-Qaeda “has the best recruiting tool it could wish for.” The same would surely have been true of the Islamic State in Libya, which is why the terror syndicate has sought to draw us into a ground conflict.

We also would have been confronted with a fractious populace. Although Libya is less artificial a nation than Iraq, it was originally divided into three provinces and even more deeply at the tribal level. This made it difficult to govern. Qaddafi and his Free Officers Movement bridged those divisions (often ruthlessly) and enforced a new concept of nationalism. Without Qaddafi, Libya fractured. “American boots on the ground” wouldn’t have prevented that from happening; the vacuum still would have existed and ISIS would have exploited it.

According to U.S. Africa Command, the Islamic State has doubled its fighters in Libya over the last 12 to 18 months — fortifying as it retreats from Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, if anything, Libya had even less social infrastructure for America to work with than Iraq. During his years in power, Qaddafi intentionally depleted every institution to make the country reliant on him. As the New York Times wrote of Libya in 2011: “It has no Parliament, no trade unions, no political parties, no civil society, no nongovernmental agencies.” With Libya’s sole governmental edifice — Qaddafi — wiped out, America would have found itself nation-building from scratch in a divided land, a task we should know by now usually proves impossible.

So what would have happened if we’d planned for the day after? The Islamic world likely would have ignored our planning, as it usually does, and immersed us in another confounding civil war, with the Islamic State’s siren song made even more alluring by our presence. It wasn’t the failure to provide post-war support that broke Libya; it was the decision to intervene in the first place.

Consider just how extensively ISIS has benefited from our Libya intervention. According to U.S. Africa Command, the Islamic State has doubled its fighters in Libya over the last 12 to 18 months — fortifying as it retreats from Iraq and Syria. As the bombs tumble down onto Raqqa, the Libyan city of Sirte has become an auxiliary capital for ISIS, another terrorist mole that will have to be whacked. The group’s coastal conquests have also given it “access to billions of dollars of oil revenue,” according to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Moammar Qaddafi was a nasty dictator, but he had also relinquished his weapons of mass destruction and was supporting the U.S. in the war on terror. A pliable and chastened Qaddafi was vastly preferable to the chaos — “Somalia on the Mediterranean,” as one British envoy put it — that persists today. President Obama may have had good intentions in Libya, just as President Bush did in Iraq, but the fact is that his imprudent intervention there damaged our national security.


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