President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney in Monday’s foreign policy debate are again likely to examine the administration’s handling of an Islamic militia’s murderous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and its significance for U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, they may again miss the crucial question raised by the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans: Why is Libya at the mercy of hundreds of lawless militias and without a functioning state one year after U.S. and NATO support enabled rebels to overthrow dictator Muammar Ghadaffi?
What both presidential nominees fail to see is that the United States and its allies went beyond their (and the U.N.’s) declared objective of protecting civilian areas under threat of attack to promoting rapid and violent regime change. This left the country in the hands of a fledgling rebel political leadership, which has tenuous control over the country’s militia groups.
The Obama administration, in devising its Libya policies, appears to have paid little attention to the country’s history or political realities. Libya has weak national institutions, with no record of democratic elections or political participation. It has strong regional and tribal tensions, a historical basis for an Islamic movement and is awash in weapons. In this context, the political and security situation in Libya today was predictable.
The Republicans, meanwhile, posed no effective challenge to administration policy during the congressional debates in June 2011. They generally accepted at face value Obama’s assurance to the nation that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake” – though it was obvious that this had, in fact, occurred.