The Bigger Question about Libya

The ginned-up fury over what Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said about the Benghazi attack on TV shows obscures a bigger question, whether the U.S.-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi was smart policy. Libya remains a country in turmoil amid growing doubts about U.S. trustworthiness, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The political inanity about what was said or not said in the first hours and days after the incident in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens continues, and it continues to move farther away from anything of importance to U.S. policy and U.S. interests. With the fixation on minutiae about the editing of some preliminary talking points, it moves farther away even from anything that makes sense in terms of competitive politics.

Even if the Obama administration had wanted to manipulate a public version of the Libyan events to help re-elect the president, how would any manipulation on this matter have done that? When has the Obama administration ever contended that international terrorism is nota major security problem (bin Laden or no bin Laden)? Such a contention would only make it all the harder for the administration to justify and explain those drone strikes and how they have become increasingly frequent under Mr. Obama.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi shortly before he was killed on Oct. 20, 2011, in Sirte, Libya.

It appears that preemptive opposition to a possible nominee for secretary of state is now part of what is sustaining the momentum of what began as a tactic in an election campaign. Please let us focus instead on how in terms of attributes and experience this person would or would not be qualified to be secretary of state, rather than how she handled her talking points on talk shows one Sunday.

Perhaps something else that helps to make this supposed issue credible is an underlying assumption that the foreign intervention that helped to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, and in which the United States participated, was a good thing and left something approaching a stable situation in Libya.

If that assumption were true, then maybe it would make sense to dwell a bit, when violence nonetheless occurs, on the relative influence of things such as Islamophobic films and the machinations of extremist groups.

But if instead what was left in Libya is a highly unstable and chronically violent situation in which the plans of terrorist groups, the uncontrolled activities of multiple militias, the inability of governing authorities to secure their own territory, and mass resentment against certain things associated with the United States all get mixed together in a constantly bubbling lethal brew, then any such dwelling is almost pointless.

It is the latter situation that in fact describes much of Libya, including Benghazi, today. As Kareem Fahim reports in the New York Times, Ambassador Stevens was only one of about three dozen public servants who have been killed in Benghazi alone over the last year and a half. The government is weaker than the militias, and even militias that have been relied upon as ersatz public security forces are unwilling to go after the likes of Ansar al-Shariah, a group accused of involvement in the attack that killed Stevens.

I have discussed before how one of the largest entries on the balance sheet of the intervention to overthrow Gaddafi is the disincentive it created for other regimes who otherwise might have been willing to reach agreements on weapons programs, terrorism, or other important issues but now are less likely to make a deal because they have a vivid demonstration of U.S. untrustworthiness.

Other parts of the balance sheet concern the instability of what was left behind in the country where the intervention occurred. Some in Washington who still believe the intervention in Libya was a good idea are hesitant to intervene in Syria because the United States avoided American casualties in Libya but maybe the same could not be said of an intervention in Syria.

Immediate American casualties are certainly a good reason for hesitation, but not the only reason. Sometimes what appears to be the avoidance of casualties is only the delaying of casualties. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans who died with him represent that.

Instead of all the business about preparation of talking points and demeanor on talk shows, the most important question about events in Libya is: was the intervention there worthwhile, and what are the implications for dealing with problem countries elsewhere in the Middle East?

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “The Bigger Question about Libya

  1. Coleen Rowley
    December 2, 2012 at 00:00

    Excerpt from my article “Militarization of the Mothers: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, from Mother’s Day for Peace”

    “As Obama’s Secretary of State, Clinton jumped into the formidable task of using the “Arab Spring” to back some US-friendly dictators while supporting protesters against other regimes the U.S. did not like. She joined Samantha Power and Susan Rice and pulled off an amazing power play. The “three harpies” (as one commentator named them) overcame internal opposition to US military intervention in Libya from three higher positioned men: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, security advisor Thomas Donilon, and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, and ended up playing key roles in support of the US-NATO massive bombing of Libya in 2011.”

  2. Hillary
    December 1, 2012 at 14:57

    How is this “borat” poster allowed to comment and not be banned for continuous rudeness bad language and taking up space here with his posts?

    How ? when WordPress continually rejects my posts ?

    Does Consortium have a code or is this just censorship or my comments ?

  3. borat
    November 30, 2012 at 17:33

    rehmatshit and Ilse Hillary Koch are the lowest pieces of antisemitic shit and are banished to the lowest rung of Dante’s Inferno.

    • Skeptic
      December 1, 2012 at 19:18

      Borat: I sincerely wish that they banned children from this site or those adults too immature and/or ignorant to express themselves civilly and articulately. Your commentary is a blight on a generally informed discourse; whatever the writers position.

  4. Vivek Jain
    November 30, 2012 at 14:10

    What was the CIA doing in Libya? What’s the connection to US ambitions to overthrow the governments of Syria and Iran?

    Why did Susan Rice lie about Libya?

    Why was the official story from the WH and the State Dept and the Beltway media a lie?

    Obama is escalating US aggression in the Middle East and North Africa.

    “The war in Syria, portrayed by a broad stratum of so-called liberals and “lefts” as a crisis demanding “humanitarian” intervention, has emerged with ever-greater clarity as an exercise in ruthless and brutal conquest. Washington and all of the major powers have joined in fomenting a bloody sectarian civil war and preparing ever-more direct military intervention with the aim of toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad and preparing a far greater war against its ally, Iran.”

    Can you imagine if Bush was doing this?

    Progressives would have gone hoarse shouting about how illegal and deadly such brazen imperialism is, especially with the severe repression and inequality at home.

    Some worthwhile articles on Syria:

  5. Hillary
    November 30, 2012 at 11:14

    This lady knows about Libya as she was a specialist in the CIA.

    Washington neocons mainly Jews demanded the PNAC be followed through.

    Involved Libya — murder ,destruction,all in the name of Israel.

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