The Outsourced War in Libya

Former President Barack Obama shakes hands with Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi before a dinner at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, July 9, 2009. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)
The cost of regime change and humanitarian intervention is not easy to share among allies. The real price falls on civilians.

Barack Obama admitted that failing to plan for a post-Qaddafi Libya was the “worst mistake” of his presidency. He didn’t appreciate how fractious Libyan society really was. He may not have even known how quickly the mission would change from one of protecting rebel groups from an imminent slaughter to an attempted decapitation of the Libyan government. Of course, he was likely to make a mistake, because the decision to go to war was made in about 96 hours. Still thrilled about her championship of a “smart power” paradigm within the administration, Hillary Clinton once exalted, “We came, we saw, he died,” referring to the fatal street-surgery that Libyans gave deposed dictator Moammar Qaddafi, a procedure that was live-broadcast from a cellphone to the rest of the world.

Eight years later, Libya is still a disaster. Depending on how you count it, Libya has had more than half a dozen governments since Qaddafi was filleted on camera. Some of them operated simultaneously. The country saw a nasty surge of ethnic cleansing against workers from Mali. It became the world capital of people-smuggling and human slavery, running a nasty business with the connivance of NGOs in the Mediterranean. And now its U.N.-sponsored government is looking shaky ahead of a serious internal challenge.

General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army is marching toward Tripoli. Haftar helped Qaddafi seize power in the late 1960s. He then went to the United States and became a citizen. He is currently the strongest of a number of strongmen vying for the country. And his militia, crashing across the country from the southeast, looks mightily formidable. U.S. troops have abandoned Libya — Did you forget we still had troops in Libya? — ahead of Haftar’s march against the U.N.-backed government and its allied militias.

One of the outstanding features of the conflict in Libya since 2011 has been outsourcing. France was the first government to recognize rebel forces as a legitimate government. But effecting that reality was outsourced to the United States.

Hillary Clinton’s idea of smart power was an attempt to combine the regime-change instincts of George W. Bush with the force-deployment skittishness and overreliance on air power of her husband. By promiscuously invoking a foreign policy of “responsibility to protect,” the U.S. was practically putting up a “for rent” sign on its air power. Any rebel faction hoping to see its local dictator overthrown could make moral and political bids on Uncle Sam’s jets and intelligence. Obama would later talk about French–U.S. relations during the Libyan campaign the way a logistics executive talks about subcontracting a partner on an earnings call. He said that the U.S. was able to “purchase France’s involvement in a way that made it less expensive for us and less risky for us.”

The job of building law and order, or an enduring political settlement, was outsourced to rebel groups, who have proven unable to do the job. Now the U.N.-backed government also can’t quite defend itself, and so it outsources that job to local militias.

One of the problems of “outsourcing” in this way is that a new company can always come in, outbid you, and take over the productive capacity. General Haftar is about to dramatically raise the costs of defending the U.N.-backed government. It would be unsurprising if, looking over at the departing U.S. military, a few of the militias defending that government cut deals to avoid the carnage that civil war might bring.

Somehow, U.S. involvement in Libya is not a front-page story, as fuel prices rise worldwide in anticipation of more “disruption” in Libya. In that sad country, one that never really should have been stitched together, we have an object lesson in the costs of chaos. And now the cost burden of regime change and humanitarian intervention is not easy to share among allies. And the real price falls on civilians and other innocents. All the talk about America’s “responsibility to protect” is useless if our policymakers cannot or will not learn a lesson about their responsibility not to harm.

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