Guest Opinion: United States is back to Libya
Although a very small team of special operations forces began working out of the Misurata and Benghazi areas at the end of last year — and Pentagon officials have spent months eyeing the Islamic State’s contingent of forces in the city of Sirte on the central coast between them — only since the first of the month has Africa Command launched airstrikes at the request of Libya’s U.N.-backed government.
Sensing momentum, Italy — the NATO ally that affords our closest geographical reach to Islamic State-held territory in Libya — is considering putting its bases to work in the fight, satisfied the effort “will be limited in time and area of operation, doesn’t foresee the use of ground forces and is limited to allowing the Libyan forces to successfully defeat the terrorist forces in the area of Sirte,” as the country’s defense minister recently noted.
For the soldiers straining to dislodge the Islamic State, the bombing is welcome news. “We hope they will intensify the air strikes in the coming days for us to make progress on the battlefield,” one fighter, Mohamad al-Ahjal, told AFP. But for the American people, the return to more forceful intervention prompts a painful reminder of how Libya wound up this way in the first place — fractured into rival factions, bisected by jihadists and clinging to a fragile “unity” government that can’t fully function as a sovereign state.
It’s a difficult reckoning. The current administration can’t carry all the blame for the Mideast implosion that followed the Arab Spring, but the surprise, uncertainty and slow reflexes that have characterized White House policy did lead to a string of miscalculations and effective defeats — not just in Syria and Iraq, but in Libya, where the Islamic State quickly and cleverly exploited the administration’s weaknesses to set up shop amid the chaos.
Doubtless, those who argue the US should have stayed out of Libya altogether are leaning a bit too hard on their ideals and dreams. Ironically, some of these critics are among the most critical of the refugee crisis in Europe aggravated by the administration’s policies. After all, the best case to intervene against the Gaddafi regime was the risk it posed, during the initial rebellion, of precipitating a massive flow of civilians (and others) fleeing “free” Benghazi into Southern Europe and beyond. But the U.S. got the worst of both worlds — an intervention that left Libya in ruins, opening the door for jihadists while contributing to an even larger refugee crisis than would have occurred had the U.S. indeed done nothing.
On the other hand, President Obama has managed to nudge Libya delicately toward order. However modest and frustrating, this policy is not failing; the Islamic State is being reduced, a recognized government has been formed and no great threat of further instability is looming on the horizon. Credit where credit is due.
Yet as the Islamic State’s international reach is reduced by President Obama’s way of war, it has compensated for the loss through terror attacks — increasing its scope in a way that could soon provoke catastrophe. And as the restoration of Libya crawls along, deep questions linger as to what exactly is U.S. policy when it comes to the whys, whens and hows of intervention. Hillary Clinton could have helped answer them by now — both during her time as a candidate today and previously as the sitting president’s secretary of state. Whatever Libya’s fate or Clinton’s, Americans need compelling answers.