For President Obama and his advisor (and now UN ambassador) Samantha Power, Libya was supposed to be the anti-Iraq, an example of the United States “leading from behind” yet implementing a “responsibility to protect.” While President George W. Bush made a mistake with his emphasis on nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan (most of the casualties sustained and money spent were in the failed effort to reconstruct the country, not in efforts to achieve initial military goals), Obama went to the other extreme. In 2004, the New York Times attempted an “October surprise” by alleging that the Bush administration negligently failed to secure an Iraqi government arms cache, resulting in the flow of 363 tons of explosives to insurgents. This turned out to be an exaggeration, but any loss of ordnance and explosives into insurgent hands costs lives and enables terrorism.
In Libya, however, there is no doubt that hundreds of tons of weaponry and explosives poured out of the country as Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s regime fell, fueling civil war and strife across the Sahel.
In recent months, the civil war in Libya has coalesced largely into a struggle between two groups: “Libyan Dignity” and “Libyan Dawn.” Libyan Dignity and the forces of former Gaddafi-era general and U.S. resident Khalifa Heftar are dominant in Tobruk and enjoy some backing by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Tunisia in their quest to roll back radical Islamist gangs. Libyan Dawn militias backed by Qatar, meanwhile, remain dominant in Misrata, Sirte, and Tripoli.
Here’s the problem: Aligned with Libyan Dawn have been al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State (ISIS), and Ansar ash-Sharia. Maybe Qatar and some Islamist Libyans believe they can use, manage, and contain the more radical terrorist groups, but they would be wrong. It was a strategy Sunni Arab oppositionists and perhaps even Iraqi Kurdish President Masud Barzani tried in Iraq to a disastrous outcome, as the Islamic State turned on its allies of convenience and unleashed a reign of terror from which areas under its control may never recover.
It also appears that what happened in Mosul could very well happen in Tripoli. Today, Al-Awsat, a Libyan daily, published photos of an alleged ISIS patrol dismantling a cosmetic store in the Libyan capital, on foot patrol, and in a pickup truck waving an ISIS flag in what they say is Tripoli.
Now, just because the Islamic State claims that it operates freely in Tripoli doesn’t make it completely so. Pictures might not lie, but they also might not give full perspective. Nevertheless, perhaps its time to recognize that Libya today is akin to Syria three years ago. If Syria was a cancer that metastasized into an immense human tragedy threatening to destabilize neighboring states, it’s possible that an ISIS safe haven in Libya could do the same not only in the Sahel, but to Egypt and Tunisia as well.
Make no mistake: Gaddafi was no ally; he was an unrepentant supporter of terror and it is hard to shed any tears over his demise or that of his autocratic and bizarre regime. Obama and Power might preach about a responsibility to protect, but ham-handed strategies are neither responsible nor do they protect; instead, they simply tap the hornet’s nest.
In Syria, there was a time when support for the opposition might have prevented further radicalization. With all due respect to Sen. John McCain, with the exception of the Syrian Kurds whom both Obama and McCain ignore the time has long since passed when the Free Syrian Army was a plausible, moderate option. In Libya, however, there is a chance to internalize the lessons of Syria. Should American boots go on the ground? No. But should the United States do everything possible to hunt down and kill the radical militias sinking their roots into Libyan soil? Absolutely.