By Matt Purple
We fight hidden wars these days. President Obama deploys troops back to Iraq (another 500 requested just this week), our weapons are sent to Syrian rebels of questionable ideology, trillions of dollars are spent, and we hear almost nothing about it. The media is too immovably fixated on the latest Hollywood divorce or the politics of the presidential horserace.
So it was with our latest regime-change war of choice in Libya back in 2011, when we deposed dictator Moammar Gaddafi in the hopes of installing a democracy, only for the entire project to go horribly awry and culminate in the killings of four Americans by jihadists at a compound in Benghazi. And so it is, too, with the latest damning report about that Libyan war, released by British Parliament earlier this month.
First, a clarification: an anonymous advisor to President Obama might have said America was “leading from behind” in Libya, but the truth is that we spearheaded the mission, dropping the majority of the bombs and footing most of the bill. Still, toppling Gaddafi did originate as a European idea, with France and Great Britain particularly gung-ho.
So it’s appropriate that the most damning critique of the Libyan intervention to date comes from British House of Commons. According to a report released by their Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Libya was a massive botch that led to “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of Isil [the Islamic State] in north Africa.” (Other than that, it went swimmingly.)
The main pretext for attacking Libya, espoused by both Obama and Cameron, was that Gaddafi, then battling a post-Arab Spring insurgency, would slaughter his own people if he regained control of his country. The Parliament report concludes this simply wasn’t supported by the facts. It quotes one expert acknowledging there was no “real evidence at that time that Gaddafi was preparing to launch a massacre against his own civilians.” What we do know for sure is that tens of thousands of Libyans were killed in the chaotic post-Gaddafi aftermath.
The report also finds that “the UK Government focused exclusively on military intervention” at the expense of feasible political alternatives that might have stopped the violence. We rushed in. And while the mission was originally limited to protecting civilians, Parliament documents how it gradually expanded into all-out regime change. We ended up fighting on the same side as the Libyan rebellion, even though, as the report also notes, we’d never sufficiently analyzed who the insurgents really were.
Gaddafi was eventually murdered by his own people, but the militias who’d fought his civil war never disbanded, and Libya ultimately descended into anarchy. The West had ripped apart another society and created a vacuum. Into the breach came the Islamic State, which established its most fortified stronghold outside Iraq and Syria on the Libyan coast.
So today we’re back in Libya, with boots on the ground and bombs raining down on ISIS targets. We’ll beat them back, of course, just as we ultimately got the best of Gaddafi, but that won’t mend the damage that’s been done. Libya is currently ruled by two querulous governments, one in the east and one in the west. In this ongoing vacuum, more terrorists will be spawned, more American dollars will be flushed, and nobody will learn a thing.
It’s that last one that grates the most. Western politics prides itself on its buck-stops-here accountability, yet no one has been held culpable for Libya and it’s likely no one ever will. Instead, our foreign policy gurus bumble onwards, demanding even more American management of the Middle East, this time in Syria.
What’s worse, few here in America are even asking what went wrong.
The Benghazi scandal was four Americans killed at a compound in Libya, but it was also Cameron’s, Obama’s, and the Washington foreign policy establishment’s bungling of that entire war. Yet how often do you hear a CNN panel discuss that in-depth? How many American news outlets quoted from Parliament’s shocking report?
As long as our wars remain invisible, the same mistakes will continue to be made.
Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by Business Insider on September 29, 2016. Read more HERE.