The Italian government is apparently quite unnerved by the implosion of its former colonial possession and the rise of Islamist elements in Libya.
“ISIS is at the door,” said Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano. “There is no time to waste.” He called for the NATO alliance to intervene in Libya and to prevent that country from coming apart any more than it already has.
The comments came after Italy shuttered its Libyan embassy and evacuated all diplomatic personnel from that turbulent nation. On Sunday, the Italian Coast Guard launched a massive rescue operation aimed at rescuing nearly 2,200 migrants who took to the Mediterranean Sea in makeshift rafts in order to flee that collapsing North African country.
In 2011, it was a limited contingent of NATO powers that intervened in the nascent Libyan civil war. That intervention provided the anti-Moammar Gaddafi rebels with the opportunity to secure the upper hand and to eventually depose the nation’s longtime dictator.
Italy’s support for NATO involvement in Libya today stands in stark contrast with that government’s conflicted approach to foreign intervention in Libya in 2011. “I was against this measure,” said former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of the NATO-led intervention. “I had my hands tied by the vote of the parliament of my country. But I was against and I am against this intervention which will end in a way that no-one knows.”
“The tight bromance between rogue leaders Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi spawned a lucrative friendship between the two countries and positioned Italy as an intermediary between Gaddafi and other European leaders,” wrote Barbie Latza Nadeau for The Daily Beast. “That all worked well when befriending Gaddafi was in Europe’s best interest, but when the Libyan leader started stifling his protesters with gunfire as part of the Arab Spring uprisings, Europe stepped away, effectively leaving Italy hanging in the balance.”
The way in which Western powers approached that intervention and the post-war peace has been described as a textbook example of how not to conduct a war, and not merely by conservatives. As early as 2013, University of Texas Professor Alan Kuperman asserted that the Libyan intervention had “backfired.” In the months that would follow, the elected, secular government in Tripoli would fall and competing Islamist elements would come to power in portions of the country.
In retrospect, it was perhaps a tad thoughtless to topple a North African strongman in the midst of the most volatile political uprising the Arab world had known for over a century, only to abandon that nation to its own devices after creating a power vacuum. The Libyan experience indicates that the oft-maligned project of “nation-building” in the wake of necessary humanitarian interventions certainly has its merits.
“The Obama administration believes the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are that the huge neo-colonial task of nation-building is beyond the West’s capability and appetite,” The BBC’s Mark Mardell wrote. “But that does not weaken the argument of others that it is a moral imperative to prevent mass murder, and that failed states are a danger to the rest of the world.”
“Foreign policy in Paris, London and Washington appears still trapped between the ease of going to war and the difficulty of creating peace,” he continued. “Libya is just one of the proving grounds.”
What’s more, the region’s chaos has prompted Arab powers like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to take charge of their own neighborhood and execute military strikes in Libya. To some observers, this is a wholly welcome development, but that perspective can often confuse a desire to see the United States extricate itself from complex global affairs with support for international stability. For myriad reasons, the United States and the West are better positioned than their Arab partners to execute military operations in the Middle East and North Africa.
The West has demonstrated that it can forestall the development of competing regional powers by taking responsibility for their security concerns. As the West has retreated from the region in this decade, so have Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia began to compete more actively against one another in the pursuit of regional hegemony. Now that competition is evolving a military component, and that contest will only grow more pressing and develop higher stakes if the West continues to retrench.
With the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria dominating the headlines, there is no appetite in the West for the opening of a new theater in Libya to combat ISIS and the sundry other Islamist elements entrenched there. But the region’s instability is arguably a direct result of the West’s disengagement. It would be wise to keep that in mind while prioritizing how best to contain the rapidly worsening conflicts in that part of the world.