Out of the New York Times last week came a report that slave auctions are now a reality in Libya. This was hardly breaking news—those who have followed the plight of that traumatized North African country know horrid human rights abuses have been rampant for years—but the existence of such auctions, unheard of by most Americans outside of weirdly macabre Disney World rides, still arouses fresh alarm. Lawless Libya has become an escape route to the Mediterranean for thousands of migrants seeking asylum in Europe, which has given rise to human traffickers promising them safe passage, only to brutalize them and even sell them as chattel. How did this happen? According to the Times: “The migrant crisis in Libya originated with the collapse of the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi six years ago.”
Really? Gaddafi’s regime just collapsed, did it? Maybe it was blown over by a strong gust of wind, or perhaps cheers were heard from a distant party of Jenga players? Strong though some of its reportage is, the Times article completely overlooks the Obama administration’s 2011 war that killed Gaddafi and plunged Libya into anarchy. Absent also is any mention of Hillary Clinton who, according to a previous Times account, was instrumental in convincing a circumspect Obama to intervene. Missing, too, was her subsequent cry of victory over Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died” (that describes a lot of Libyans these days). The left-leaning Times couldn’t even muster up a shot at Marco Rubio who supported the Libya mission on the jejune grounds that “we would love to see, to the extent possible, peaceful countries run by people that are in search of prosperity.”
Instead, the Times portrayed the Libyan crisis as all about refugees, with European leaders indicted for trying to stem the human flow out of Africa. The migrant problem is a knotty one and deserves consideration, but it isn’t the root cause of Libya’s woes: that would be the 2011 invasion, which led to human trafficking and horrors beyond. Into the post-Gaddafi vacuum were sucked two and at times three different governments, each claiming legitimacy over Libya, with a honeycomb of militias in between. The regime presently supported by the United States, the Government of National Accord (GNA), wields authority that’s shaky at best. Its rival, the House of Representatives in Tobruk, exerts substantial military control over eastern and central Libya, boosted by the Russians. Just last week, the army forces of former Gaddafi nemesis General Khalifa Haftar, which are allied with Tobruk, threatened to exercise “military might” if a political solution isn’t reached within six months. That presumably would mean an invasion of Tripoli, which, were Haftar successful, could end with Libya being forcibly reunited under the rule of a single military officer.
Away from the halls of power, the lives of average Libyans have been turned upside-down, with electricity flickering on and off during heat waves, banks turning away prospective withdrawers with empty pockets, the economy trapped in the doldrums. The AFP last year interviewed several Libyans who openly yearned for the days of Gaddafi. “I hate to say it but our life was better under the previous regime,” said one, adding, “Everything is three times more expensive [now].” The turbulence has radiated outwards: from Tunisia to Egypt to England, terrorist attacks have been traced back to Libya, where lawlessness provides an ideal nesting ground for jihadists. Until late last year when a rare concerted military operation drove them out, Islamic State fighters were using the city of Sirte as a sort of auxiliary capital to their stronghold in Raqqa. And Gaddafi’s weapon stocks, smuggled out of the country after the dictator’s downfall, have fueled violence from Mali to Syria.
The invasion of Iraq seems now the relic of a bygone era, one doped up on American idealism only to crash into the hazy desert. But Libya was of a different time. The United States had supposedly been chastened for its recklessness, culminating in the election of a candescent young president who crushed two pro-war challengers. That Obama went on to make the same mistake Bush did—toppling a dictator in a tribally riven country without even a plan for the aftermath—almost beggars belief. We had a template for what would happen and we went ahead with it anyway. All the more fatuous, then, that some commentators now pronounce that our real blunder in Libya was not deploying more troops during the war’s aftermath. Why would that have turned out any differently than in Iraq where our forces became targets for millenarian jihadists and civil war raged on regardless?
Other excuses abound. Some claim that were Gaddafi not deposed, Libya would have turned into another Syria, bloodier than it is today with a maniacal dictator flinging bombs at the innocent. This is utterly at odds with the timeline of the war, which by mid-March 2011 saw Gaddafi-aligned forces retake the critical western city of Zawiya, edge towards Libya’s all-important oil refineries, and press the attack on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Pockets of resistance might have persisted but the bulk of Libya’s conflict was over and the regime had won—indeed, much of the pro-war argument in 2011 hinged on the assumption that Gaddafi was going to triumph unless we stopped him. It was Western airstrikes that prolonged the violence by shifting momentum behind the rebels. That leads to the next excuse: a Gaddafi victory would have enabled untold atrocities against civilians, which we had an obligation to stop. There’s little question Gaddafi committed war crimes before we intervened, but was the alternative any better? According to the International Crisis Group, “the protest movement exhibited a violent aspect from very early on” and “the demonstrations were infiltrated by violent elements,” including Islamist ones. Given how civilians have fared since Gaddafi was toppled, invoking them to defend the intervention doesn’t at all add up.
Ultimately, neocons and liberal internationalists have mostly stayed quiet on the subject of Libya, perhaps because second-guessing the mission based on the short-term results isn’t really the point. As with Iraq, this was at its core an ideological project, eliciting its most ardent support from those who still believe, however clandestinely, that it is the unshakeable purpose of the United States to avenge the downtrodden and be liberalism’s missionary. From that viewpoint, what are temporary military setbacks against bright starbursts of principle? And what are a few years of mayhem in the greater context of the “long war”? Those who subordinate reality to abstract ideology rarely learn from their mistakes, which is why, even after that supposed post-Iraq chastening, we are fighting at least five wars, none of them going particularly well. And then it’s on to Iran next, with a pit stop in Yemen along the way, even as the Gulf State campaign against the Houthi rebels flounders there. The war ideologues gesture ever forward, even as they clamber over the wreckage of the latest cities their policies have destroyed.
However extreme these beliefs might be, they’ve become the bedrock of D.C.’s foreign policy brain trust. Last year, the Washington Post profiled several members of what it termed the “foreign policy elite” and found “remarkable consensus,” with nearly everyone in agreement that America needed to be more militarily involved in the world, and particularly in Syria. The return of the slave trade to Libya is Exhibit A of why that unanimity is no longer sustainable, why it so often leaves nations worse than they were before. As the groupthink continues—as the neocon cat enters its next life and Tom Cotton’s name is bandied about for CIA director—the words of William F. Buckley should at some point be allowed to intrude: “Just as Woodrow Wilson was set on making the world safe for democracy, breeding instead Stalin and Hitler, we rail against despotism and breed public chaos.” How many more must suffer before we adjust for this error?
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.