Better the dictator you condemn than the insurgents you can’t control

May 1, 2015
Fighters from Misrata fire weapons at Islamic State militants near Sirte

Fighters from Misrata fire weapons at Islamic State militants near Sirte, March 15, 2015. Militants loyal to Islamic State, the group which has seized much of Iraq and Syria, have established a larger presence in central Libya in recent weeks. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

President Obama, already musing on failures during his second term, has said he regrets that the U.S. joined a coalition to intervene in Libya in 2011, ousting President Muammar Gaddafi, without an adequate plan for the post-Gaddafi society. “I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this.”

It’s curious that Obama and his allies had not ordered a plan for the new Libya: They had the example of the Iraq invasion in 2003. The war was won quickly but the post-war haunts us still, in part because the war effort was not paralleled with a vigorous peace effort.

President George W. Bush’s speech on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 – “the United States and its allies have prevailed” – was echoed by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s chuckle to a reporter when hearing of Gaddafi’s death, “We came, we saw, he died.” Both thought the loosing of Western military force on dictators had settled the matter: Both lived to know otherwise.

Bush’s speech, now and forever to be known as the “Mission Accomplished” speech (in fact he said: “the mission continues”), is one of idealism: “Decades of lies and intimidation could not make the Iraqi people love their oppressors or desire their own enslavement. Men and women in every culture need liberty like they need food, and water, and air.”

But now, the rhetoric seems hollow. The vacuum created by the fall of the tyrant yielded not democrats (or not enough), but old feuds, hatreds, divisions — and, above all, the militants of jihadism resurgent, al Qaeda, Islamic State and others.

As in Iraq, Libya has known no stability since the toppling of its tyrant, Gaddafi. The first elected prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagour, was out in a month: In four years, the country has had seven prime ministers. Armed Islamist groups are allowed to flourish — there is no reliable army to keep them down — and now control slices of the state. A jihadist government chased the elected administration out of the capital, Tripoli, and rules there: The internationally recognized government huddles in the eastern port city of Tobruk — which older Europeans remember as the site of one of the great battles of World War Two, the first sign that the fortunes of war might turn against the Nazis.

An estimated 10,000 are reckoned, conservatively, to have died in the chaos of Gaddafi’s fall. One of these was the U.S. Ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012.

The message has hit home: Better the dictator you can condemn than the insurgents you cannot control (and may hate you more).

Shorn of any military option, the only hope is to bring the opposing parties to some kind of talks. Earlier this month, the UN special representative in Libya, Bernardino Leon, said that an agreement could be close — to talk, nothing more, and perhaps not even that. Yet so full of hate and bitterness against each other are the warring groups, so convinced of their own virtue and the others’ vices, that any agreement would seem elusive — and, if reached, fragile.

And the jihadists have a bargaining chip: the masses who seek European sanctuary. Horrifyingly, this is the country from which thousands of migrants from all over Africa and the Middle East still pour into the Mediterranean, risking drowning in their yearning for a better life. They come from countries where Islamist groups threaten government, or as in Libya, claim to be it. The European Union is so desperate to stop the exodus that it has proposed military action against the human traffickers, a plan that has drawn derision from the so-called administration in Tripoli – the National Salvation Government. Its foreign minister, Mohamed el-Ghiriani, has warned Libya would “confront” any force that attempted to carry out the threatened destruction: If that were to be avoided, “they have to speak to us.”

An Arab capital is now under jihadist control; it is also in the country closest to the borders of the EU. For two decades, we have been warned that “failed states” are a large threat to Western security: It is vividly clear that the warning was right.

6 comments

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Better if you’re not one that the Dictator chooses to disappear and slaughter your family.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Our so-called “leaders” will never learn the lessons history teaches. We continue to oust leaders we don’t like; we continue to prop up regimes we think serve our interests; we continue to choose sides in fights that concern us not in the least. It’s this kind of hubris (in both political parties) that threatens not only our own well-being but global peace as well.

Posted by Toomuchthinking | Report as abusive

Reuters never published my original comment that the west is pursuing the same stupid policies in Syria. We need to be supporting Assad, not opposing him!

So much for free speech!

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

“Bomb them back to the Stone Age”
Curtis LeMay, 1966 re Vietnam.
Richard Armitage according to Pervez Musharraf, 2002 re Pakistan.
Ted Cruz, 2014 re Iraq and Syria.
It is not hard to find positive things to say about the Roman and British Empires. Not so the Mongol Empire, more into slaughter, destruction and looting. The US military industrial complex does slaughter and destruction but gets the US taxpayer to foot the bill rather than looting.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Agree with Toomuchthinking. The western leaders think they are doing good by intervening. But they have actually opened Pandora’s box in Libya which WILL destroy EUROPE in next 30-40yrs, unless the EU stem the people smugglers with strict action. You CANNOT house the whole of libyan population in Italy/Germany. By accepting the so called refugees, you are indirectly abetting/supporting National Savlation governement (NSG) in Libya.

Clearly the National Salvation Government is upset on EU use of military action to control the people smugglers. The EU must first build public support (via media) aganst the NSG in abetting the people smugglers. I would bet my last dollar that there are lots & lots of ISIS fighters & Al queda fighters entering Europe via these channels on the pretxt of refugges. They are moles for the headquaters. Cant the EU government see this? How blind! Learn from the mistakes Denmark made in accpting them freely, and now wants to pay them to leave. Ha ha ha. ridiculous. Do something before its too late else the civilised Europe we know will not last by next decade.

Posted by AllNamesTaken | Report as abusive

Shock and awe. Democracy and peace are just around the corner :)

Bush/Cheney fail.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive