After many dismaying days of watching anti-American protests across the Middle East, galvanized by an obscure anti-Mohammad video made by someone or other, Americans now have a protest to cheer: Libyans have taken to the streets en masse in Benghazi to make clear their anger at the militia groups they hold responsible for the attack that killed the popular American ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues. Fed up that Libya’s nascent, moderate government is unable to disarm militias, the people have taken the task into their own hands, forcibly disarming several militia groups and storming the headquarters of the extremist Ansar al Sharia group. Some 30,000 people marched through Benghazi, bearing signs that included “We want justice for Chris” and “The ambassador was Libya’s friend.” Protesters even chanted at Ansar al Sharia members: “You terrorists, you cowards. Go back to Afghanistan.”
This is, to put it mildly, heartening, and it shows that the people of Libya are hardly the anti-American radicals that many imagine them to be based on the actions of a few hotheads. One obvious takeaway is that the Middle East is not a uniform mass of sharia-spouting, America-hating crazies–which is, alas, the crude stereotype which remains popular in too many corners of the West. There are, in fact, complex forces at play and, while the radicals may grab the headlines, there is a “silent majority”–in the case of Libya, silent no more–that is more interested in peaceful social and economic development than it is in waging jihad against the West.
A second lesson from the Libya protests is that this is the payoff from an intervention to topple a hated dictator–America has plainly won the hearts of many in Libya, just as it did previously in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Kurdish region of Iraq. That does not, of course, mean that all Libyans love us–the extremists who killed our ambassador plainly did not–but it does mean that there is an undercurrent of sympathy for America that is not present in countries where we are associated with unpopular dictatorial regimes. We now have an opportunity to win popular favor in Syria or else suffer the opprobrium of allowing a terrible bloodletting to occur while we do nothing–which many Syrians will no doubt interpret as tacit American support for the hated Assad regime.
A third and final lesson is the need for follow-through–it is not enough to topple a dictator; it is just as important to establish order in his wake–something the Bush administration failed to do in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the Obama administration failed to do in Libya. The counsels of those of us who favored the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force to Libya after the successful NATO intervention were ignored. The result is the continuing chaos (although admittedly it is by no means a sure thing that an international force could have imposed order; it might even have sparked greater conflict). It is not, however, too late: Libya now has a moderate, pro-American government that is struggling to control its territory. While some isolationists in Congress argue that, in the wake of Stevens’s death, we should cut off aid to Libya, our proper course is just the opposite: We must increase aid, including the dispatch of military equipment and advisers, to create a national army and police force robust enough to keep order.