Five years have passed since the beginning of the international campaign against the dictatorship of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. Much was achieved – it cannot be forgotten – within the year. Gaddafi’s forces were defeated, his attempt to slaughter the rebels in Benghazi was foiled, the colonel himself was killed, and it looked as if Libya could begin again, liberated with the help of the wider world from the yoke of a decades-long tyranny.
This rosy vision has not come to pass, and for much of the last four years Libya has been ravaged by violence between factions; now, it even faces a threat from an affiliate of the Islamic State. For many in power in the West, Libya may be considered a nation – and an intervention – best forgotten. The fact of its apparent promise, in the heady days of the Arab Spring, has apparently come to naught. But for President Obama in particular, this tragedy serves as a justification, not a cautionary tale. He wishes to attribute blame. His target in this endeavour is the European continent and its leaders.
This inference is not new, but new evidence of it is supplied in a recent interview of Obama by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, which categorised the ‘Obama Doctrine’ of foreign policy thinking. In this exchange, however, instead of setting things straight the president – among other things – made several statements about the Libyan crisis which do not stand up.
President Obama suggested that the blame for the disintegration of Libyan society and the failure of nation-building in that country could be attributed primarily to a lack of European effort.
In Obama’s interview with Goldberg, he set the scene: ‘you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action.’ One thing to note is the none-too-subtle elision of genuine humanitarian concern with simple hatred or geopolitical jockeying. This is, at heart, a scornful attitude for the president to exhibit – and to act upon – in relation to America’s European and Middle Eastern allies.
Even worse, in Obama’s mind, is the apparent hesitance of these allies to act. ‘But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances’, Obama related, ‘is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.’
In this estimation, European countries were little more than ‘free riders’. The implication was that, both during and after the intervention against the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, the European continent simply sat back and waited for the Americans to act on its behalf.
This is a misnomer for two reasons: first, the Europeans (despite having contributed significantly to the campaign against Gaddafi) bear less blame than the United States’ government and Obama himself; and second, the Libyan dictatorship under Gaddafi must carry the lion’s share of responsibility for what took place during his time in power – namely, the calculated destruction of Libyan civil society and the deliberate weakening of institutions and factions which could provide alternative sources of authority in the event of the regime’s overthrow.
The latter point is fairly easy to express. Witness the savagery with which Gaddafi threatened the besieged citizens of Benghazi, for example – something Obama himself recognises (‘And Qaddafi is marching his army toward Benghazi, and he has said, “We will kill them like rats”’) and which was the trigger for Western intervention in the first place. But it needs further examination.
President Obama kicked off the intervention, swiftly deemed ‘leading from behind’, by launching over a hundred Tomahawk missiles and promptly taking his foot off the accelerator. American forces certainly participated in the military action – indeed, much of the work carried out by some European air forces was predicated upon American support in logistical terms. But the very fact of America’s status as a front-rank power made this an inevitability. What is surprising about Libya – what is damning – is the apparent failure of the leader of the free world to act in the spirit compelled by his position.
When the world’s pre-eminent nation – its singular superpower – fails to lead on a matter such as this, the rest of the world has little chance of making the necessary difference. British and French forces are often willing to take risks and to commit a great amount in pursuit of a worthy cause or goal, but without the fundamental backing of US power and the sanction of American intent, efforts like this can only fall short. We do not live, after all, in a world dominated by – or even largely populated with – European powers. American exceptionalism is not an aspiration; it is a reality, both for the United States – regardless of whoever resides in the White House – and the rest of the world.
Yet Obama, it seems, falls into the habits all too common in long-term holders of high office: he simply cannot imagine that he has done anything wrong. He bemoans the unfairness of it all to Goldberg: ‘We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.’
Note the fact that building up Libyan institutions does not warrant a mention. Indeed, the only criticism Obama has of his own action is that ‘I had more faith in the Europeans … being invested in the follow-up’. This is a fairly myopic and blinkered view of events, but it is at least consistent with a certain strand of thinking which considers America’s European allies to be little more than ephemeral players, determined to wring what they can from the continuation of a stale friendship.
The difference here is between participating and acting; it is between following and leading; it is between simply intervening and building nations. Obama always chose the former, and Libya has suffered for it. And in the face of his own failure, the President of the United States has chosen to blame anyone but himself.