“Libya is a mess.” Five years after the NATO campaign in Libya, U.S. President Barack Obama criticized that operation. But he’s not taking all the responsibility: He lays some of it on his advisers, Europe and the Gulf.
In a series of interviews with The Atlantic magazine, Obama removed all the pebbles from his shoes. He lamented the lack of support from European allies and the oil monarchies, tribal divisions in Libya, and errors by his own advisers. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s intervention plan “didn’t work.” The president’s jab shakes the Clinton campaign during heated days of a tough Democratic primary campaign against Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said. In particular, he points his finger at British Prime Minister David Cameron and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who permitted Libya to dissolve from a nation to an unmanageable problem. Cameron became “distracted” by other problems, thus contributing to what Obama privately refers to as the Libyan “shit show.”
“Sarkozy,” meanwhile, “wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure.” While the Europeans were being opportunistic and pressing the U.S. to back away, the Saudis were inflaming conflicts across the region, thus losing Washington’s unconditional support.
On the contrary, Obama says, the U.S. conducted the operation as planned. It just didn’t work: “We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion — which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”
Obama is only happy about one achievement: not having launched an operation in Syria in 2013 against the Assad regime after it was revealed the dictator had gassed his own civilians. “To press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest.” More or less, it was the diplomatic intervention of Russia that allowed the Obama administration to hit the brakes.
Many leaders offer a mea culpa with hindsight. There are those who apologize for Iraq and those who say international interventionism gave rise to al Qaeda and ISIS. And nevertheless the strategy remains the same: The same Obama who criticizes the previous Libyan operation is the same one pushing for an identical operation there today. This is the same Obama who has pushed for drone operations taking off from southern Europe. He’s the same person who was the leader of the coalition that toppled Muammar Gaddafi without having any alternative to the colonel.
It’s difficult to expect that the president’s critiques might change plans for Libya. Western leaders say they would only launch an intervention there to stop ISIS, which is perched in Sirte and Derna but able to infiltrate all along the coast. But 5,000-6,000 militants does not seem an insurmountable threat. The real problem lies elsewhere: Even if a coalition intervened, there is no legitimate government in Libya to support against ISIS, only a variety of competing authorities.
An external intervention, with or without a request from an eventual unitary government, wouldn’t have a stabilizing effect. On the contrary, it would amplify sectarianism. ISIS is aware of having reached the target: the continuing arrival of new recruits — growing in Libya and diminishing in Syria — contributes to the strengthening of an organization that is aimed at destabilizing the country.
Abdul Qadr al-Najdi, ISIS’s new emir overseeing Libya, explicitly confirmed this to the caliphate’s magazine al-Naba. He said the organization is becoming stronger every day and called Libya a “vanguard of the caliphate.” From there, he threatened the launch of a conquest of Rome and surrounding countries, including Tunisia.
Meanwhile, in Tunis on Thursday, the United Nations inaugurated a new round of talks to try to revive a dying dialogue on Libyan unity. U.N. envoy Martin Kobler will lead the negotiations in an effort to bypass the stalemate caused by the internationally recognized parliament based in Tobruk. For weeks the Tobruk government has refused vote on a unity government under Tripoli parliamentarian and Prime Minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj.
The official motivation is the continuing absence of a quorum. But the lack of quorum was dictated by military commander Khalifa Haftar, who is stalling in hopes of securing a top position, with the help of his allies in Egypt.
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