On October, 2011, amid a lethargic economic recovery, President Barack Obama – a man who prided himself on ending wars, not starting them – touted his foreign policy successes. Beyond the successful raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, Obama noted that he had successfully solved two thorny international puzzles; ending the war in Iraq and successfully prosecuting a brief campaign to stem the violence in Libya.
In a speech in the White House, the president made the case for his own competency within an announcement regarding the beginning of the full withdrawal of American troops from the Mesopotamian theater.
“In Libya, the death of Muammar Gaddafi showed that our role in protecting the Libyan people, and helping them break free from a tyrant, was the right thing to do,” the president said. “In Iraq, we’ve succeeded in our strategy to end the war.”
Those concerned about the vacuum the president was leaving in Iraq were ignored, and the chaos in that country has now vindicated Obama’s critics. The dream of Islamists going back generations, the founding of a pan-Islamic caliphate, has been achieved in the Sunni regions of Syria and Iraq. Terrorist actors now operate with impunity in that caliphate’s interior. The Islamic State’s fighters are brazenly engaged in the pursuit of unconventional weapons while intelligence officials believe they continue to plan sophisticated attacks on Western targets.
But what about Libya where the president, without seeking Congressional approval, committed to military action with the aim of containing that country’s rapidly escalating civil war? The mission was a relative success and, in short order, rebel factions took Tripoli and executed Gaddafi – one of the United States’ preferred, though neither stated nor pursued, mission objectives.
Today, that country is a disaster. The bleak future in store for Libya was glimpsed on the night of September 11, 2012 when four Americans were killed in a coordinated attack on American diplomatic and intelligence assets in Benghazi. Those attackers lived free in a virtually lawless state for the next several years.
Though it escaped front page treatment in the West, the Libyan civil war gradually entered its second stage – a stage more closely resembling the situation in Iraq where a fragile and unpopular pro-Western government is failing to provide for its own defense in the face of an Islamist insurgency.
Like Iraq, Libya’s Islamist insurgents are highly capable. On Monday, militants battled for control of the capital’s airport. The government claims that 90 percent of the aircraft on the ground and several structures, including the customs house, were damaged in the fighting.
— Jon Williams (@WilliamsJon) July 14, 2014
Today, the Associated Press reported, Libya’s interim governing authorities – authorities which have been unable to organize a legitimate election in the more than three years since Gaddafi was deposed — are sounding the alarm bells.
“Libya’s interim government says it is considering requesting the international community to send troops to the country after three days of fighting destroyed large parts of the capital’s airport,” the report reads.
The question then becomes: who will take Libya’s call? What international body is today prepared to commit forces to stabilize Libya when the more strategically significant conflicts in Syria and Iraq have been ignored and allowed to metastasize? Libya is alone, and that country may soon more closely resemble a member of the caliphate that is strengthening in the Fertile Crescent.
Obama deserves to be criticized for prematurely declaring victory in these two theaters in the fall of 2011. He won political victories which served a short-term political purpose, but his administration failed to pursue a far-sighted strategy which would have prevented these states from collapsing.
When historians look back on this period through the précising lens of posterity, they will marvel over how rapidly the international landscape changed for the worse. To them, the legacy of peacemaking the president once coveted will appear quite irrational.