By Alex Knepper
It is ironic that foreign policy interventionists are so frequently accused by our critics of overestimating the reach of American power. Since the disappointments of the ‘Arab Spring,’ it has become commonplace to lay the blame for the ongoing chaos in Libya at the feet of President Obama — and especially then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was decisive in pushing the president to intervene — as well as those who have generally pushed for greater American intervention since 9/11. Non-interventionists are sure that Libya is their ace in the hole: how can anyone defend Clinton’s urging to force out Qaddafi, given that ISIS has found a foothold in Libya and there is no resolution in sight? Haven’t we learned our lesson by now?
Despite non-interventionists’ foolish overestimation of the reach of American power, is not always simply up to the United States whether a tyrant stays or goes, and it is seldom within our power to prevent a badly deteriorating political situation from collapsing into chaos. Often we are given the choice between — to paraphrase Lindsey Graham on Ted Cruz — being shot or being poisoned. Of course, it is easy for pundits to declare that we should seek health — but if a nation’s political culture is sick to the core, then recovery will take decades — not years, and certainly not months — and pretending we can avoid the problem simply by keeping our hands from getting dirty is nothing but kicking the can down the road.
From North Africa to Syria, the ‘Arab Spring’ was first and foremost a revolt against secular authoritarianism. We have learned that the removal of tyrants in the Arab world is likely to open a path for Islamists. This was relatively predictable, and many did predict it at the time. But when the will of the people is overwhelming, there is little the United States can do to contain the situation in a way that is tantamount to anything but a short-term fix. Looking at Egypt, for instance: if we actually had successfully propped up Hosni Mubarak — who, unlike Qaddafi, actually was ‘our bastard’ — we would have necessarily given Islamists many more years to spread their ideology, giving them a fresh chance to appeal to festering resentments and new fuel for anti-Americanism in response to our meddling in propping up Mubarak. Instead, we accepted the inevitable and watched his regime collapse. Islamists have since had to attempt to turn their preaching into policy. Today, we see the many failures of Islamists in Egypt — and so do Egyptians. In the short-term, America is put into a more difficult situation in the Middle East for what has happened in Egypt — but in the long-term, we may have avoided something far worse, and helped to open up the path to new alternatives for the Middle East by allowing Islamists to put their limitations as rulers on display for all to see. The alternative — Mubarak-style secular tyranny in perpetuity — is inconceivable. Something had to give, and it’s better to deal with it upfront than to let the situation fester.
Unlike Mubarak, of course, Qaddafi was a sworn enemy of the United States and its allies. In 2011, the situation in Libya was not radically different from the one in Syria today. There are no obviously ‘good’ actors involved, the few ‘moderates’ involved are moderate only in a relative sense — and hence there is no easy choice for America, especially in the short-term. But as with Assad in Syria, it had become blindingly evident in 2011 that Gaddafi had become intolerable to a large enough segment of the population that to assist in propping him up would be nothing but a short-term fix. Let’s consider the alternatives: if we had not intervened and Qaddafi mercilessly slaughtered his people, Assad-style, Obama and Clinton would be blamed for that mess, too. If we had not intervened and Islamists were successful in ousting Qaddafi, Obama and Clinton would be blamed for that mess, too. The USA didn’t ‘break’ Libya; Libya was bound for chaos, and the only question was how we were going to respond to it.
There is no excuse — on the part of the Obama Administration or our NATO allies — for not attempting to do more to follow up on its actions not only in Libya, but also in Syria and Iraq. ISIS will eventually have to be wiped out, which means there will need to be not only boots on the ground but a long-term commitment from a grand coalition of NATO allies, led by the United States, to oversee the maintenance of a new provisional government. But the need to destroy ISIS was going to materialize regardless of whether we intervened to take out Qaddafi — and Libya would still be chaotic, too. It is convenient for non-interventionists — and for opportunists like Donald Trump — to blame the the United States for every mess in the world — but sometimes all we can do is swallow the poison instead of taking the bullet.