The Libya Surprise

Like it or not, the Arab Spring is Obama's foreign policy legacy. And the aftermath of Benghazi could actually turn out to be great for America. 

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Two months into Libya’s revolution in April 2011, I visited Benghazi and the other liberated cities in the country’s east. It was Libya’s hour of greatest idealism and highest hope. The rebels were promising to build a society grounded in human rights and respect for law. In town after town, walls were painted with slogans of revolutionary moderation: "We reject extremism" and "We want a country of institutions." Everyone who wasn’t rushing to fight on the front lines seemed to be starting a newspaper or radio station or volunteer group, eager to connect to the world from which Muammar al-Qaddafi had isolated them and grateful to the mostly Western countries that helped them in their moment of need. 

I met Ambassador Chris Stevens then, in his makeshift diplomatic mission in a Benghazi hotel. He had recently arrived as America’s envoy to the rebel authorities in the east and was pressing them, as I was, to treat prisoners well and to start building judicial institutions. We shared a laugh about what seemed America’s biggest image problem in Benghazi at the time: French and Italian flags outnumbered American ones in the central square during Friday prayers. The explanation: Libyans had to make the flags by hand, and simple European tricolors were easier to reproduce than all those stars and stripes.

But Stevens knew Libya too well to assume that the rebels were all Jeffersonian democrats or that the militias fighting Qaddafi would easily give up their guns and power when the dictator was gone. He believed, however, that something special still had a chance to emerge from Libya’s revolutionary chaos: that having suffered 40 years of Qaddafi’s Green Book ideology, Libyans would be wary of extremists and ideologues of all stripes; that having awakened, Libya’s civil society would not let anyone, neither a dictator nor armed gangs, intimidate it again; that having received the right measure of international help — enough to win their friendship, but not so much as to deny them ownership of their revolution — Libyans would develop a healthy relationship with the West, neither overly dependent nor reflexively hostile.

At first, Stevens’s murder in Benghazi seemed to call these hopes into question. Many Americans naturally wondered whether support for the Arab Spring yielded any benefits for the United States, or just more rage. It seemed inevitable that the State Department would restrict its diplomats behind even more walls and steel — though Stevens died not while engaging with Libyans in the cultural center he had come to Benghazi to open, but behind the walls of a diplomatic compound and the steel of a "safe" room.

Terrorists can strike anywhere. But it is how governments and societies react that determines whether terrorism succeeds or fails. And Libyans’ reaction to the tragedy vindicated what Stevens believed the country is and could become. Could anyone, whether a cynic or optimist about the region, have dreamed of a better response to an attack on a diplomatic mission on Arab soil than what happened after the violence in Benghazi — tens of thousands of people marching on the headquarters of the law-defying militias suspected of complicity in the assault (and of multiple other killings over the past several months) to run them out of town, while holding signs paying tribute to the fallen ambassador?

It was not just Libya’s political elite who were angry and ashamed about what happened. The morning I learned of Stevens’s death, I emailed an influential Islamist leader in eastern Libya, fearing that he would be more agitated by the anti-Mohammed video than the killings we thought (wrongly it seems) it had precipitated: "You can’t imagine how sad we are," he immediately replied. "Clearly, [Stevens] was a citizen of a country that has helped us to be liberated from one of the most bloody regimes; and before all that, he was our guest who we were supposed to protect. We will do all we can to make clear that a killing is a killing no matter what the motives were."

Libya’s highest religious leader, the grand mufti, issued a fatwa against the killers, linking them to militants who have been attacking Libya’s Sufi shrines in recent weeks. Libya’s offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood was the first political party to denounce the attacks. Even a political party led by former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group — men who have plenty of reasons to be angry at the United States, especially because the CIA tortured them and rendered them to Qaddafi’s prisons during George W. Bush’s administration — joined the condemnation and said the party accepted completely the U.S. government’s assurance that it had nothing to do with the infamous Internet film.

Consider how differently Libyans might have responded had the international community not come to their aid last year. Militant groups with links to al Qaeda would probably have gained adherents among Libyans feeling bloodied by their government and abandoned by the West. These militants would have been just as eager to attack American targets on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but the United States would have had far fewer Libyan friends, as well as a less cooperative partner in the Libyan government, to help meet the threat.

As it is, the country where Barack Obama’s administration made its most unequivocal stand on behalf of an Arab Spring uprising is the country whose citizens came together most marvelously in opposition to the embassy and consulate attacks and in solidarity with the victims. Where America’s support for democratic change and human rights has been more measured, so has the popular reaction to the recent attacks.

Egypt is a case in point. The official and popular responses to the breaching of the U.S. Embassy compound was, initially, far more ambiguous than in Libya. But so, in the minds of many Egyptians, has been U.S. support for their democratic aspirations.

Obama did, of course, tell President Hosni Mubarak that he had to go during the Tahrir Square uprising last year and, at crucial moments since, has pressed Egyptian leaders to embrace change. He has not yet, however, managed to convince a majority of Egyptians that Washington was unequivocally on their side. In large part, this is because of the 30-year legacy of U.S. support for Mubarak that Obama inherited. It is also because the fall of Egypt’s dictator did not mean the immediate end of its military dictatorship, and because the administration has continued to balance its support for change in Egypt against its relationship with the country’s abusive armed forces.

In my view, Obama’s finest hour in Egypt came this June, when he said the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces should respect the results of Egypt’s presidential election and let the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsy, take office. But this pressure did not come when the eyes of the world were upon Tahrir Square. It was exercised largely behind the scenes. And many of Egypt’s revolutionaries were themselves of two minds about letting the Brotherhood take power. Obama’s principled stand probably helped him three months later, when he persuaded Morsy and the Brotherhood to condemn the embassy attacks more vigorously after their initial silence. But it was not enough — not yet — to overcome decades of popular Egyptian mistrust of the United States.

In Yemen, the United States ultimately helped ease the long-serving dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, out of office and is providing significant aid for the economy and the transition process. There is still resentment, however, over U.S. support for Saleh in the first months of the uprising, over U.S.-backed deals that gave Saleh immunity and allowed his relatives to keep top security posts, and over drone strikes. Supporting democracy and development may be a priority for Washington in Yemen, but Yemenis know that it is not the top priority. This may explain why, when mobs breached the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, many Yemeni citizens reacted with a degree of anger and shame, but not the universal revulsion — or spontaneous popular rising against the perpetrators — that we saw in Libya. And it may be why Yemen’s parliament condemned the violence but voted against allowing U.S. Marines to reinforce the embassy compound.

In Bahrain, too, Washington has straddled the fence between demanding political reform and staying on good terms with an authoritarian monarchy that hosts a U.S. naval base. Many members of Bahrain’s mostly Shiite opposition are frustrated with the United States for not opposing the Bahraini government’s repression more strongly; from time to time, young protesters chant anti-American slogans. But opposition leaders and activists still desperately want American help. On the Friday after the embassy riots elsewhere in the region, they urged their followers not to demonstrate against the United States. In other words, it is faith — fragile and perhaps temporary — in the possibility of a more principled American policy that protects U.S. interests in Bahrain from the anger of its Shiite street.

Yet America’s partnership with Bahrain’s government has not stopped hard-line members of the country’s ruling family from fomenting anti-American hatred among their Sunni supporters. The only demonstrators waving the al Qaeda flag outside the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain last month were backers of the monarchy. If there is a threat to the thousands of American personnel stationed in Bahrain, it is more likely to come from supporters of America’s authoritarian "friends" on the island than from the opposition, as U.S. military officers on the island privately acknowledge.

What lessons should the Obama administration draw from all this?

First, recent events have reinforced, not weakened, the rationale for supporting political change in the Arab world. No sober-minded proponent of such a policy believed it would prevent every act of terrorism or resolve every source of tension between the United States and the region. The point was to deny extremists the argument that the United States supports oppressive regimes and to gradually win America more allies among the people of Arab countries against al Qaeda and extremism. It was also to create space for the political reformers and civil society activists whom the Mubaraks and Qaddafis (not to mention the House of Saud) suppressed, allowing them to serve as a counterweight to those on the violent fringe. So far, the more consistently this policy has been applied, the more these effects have been seen.

Second, the United States naturally cannot do everywhere in the Middle East what it did in Libya. The solidarity Libyans feel with the countries that supported them, as well as their consequent rejection of terrorism, is not by itself a sufficient argument for military intervention in Syria or elsewhere. But people liberating themselves from dictatorship in the Arab world will be more likely to help those, and listen to those, who help them (and vice versa). Entanglement in the troubles arising from the Arab Spring is not a dangerous thing for the United States if it is principled and aligns Washington with people struggling for their dignity and human rights.

Certainly, this is no time to lurch to the opposite extreme — to start seeing the region in terms of threats, not opportunities, to pull out the diplomats and send in the drones. It is sad that the only questions Congress is asking the administration now about Libya concern the attack on U.S. diplomats and whether someone can be blamed for not anticipating it or beefing up security enough. Congress should be demanding to know how the administration plans to continue the fallen diplomats’ mission. How will it help the legitimate Libyan authorities rein in the militias responsible for the lawlessness in the country, as the vast majority of Libyans want?

Third, though the United States will continue to juggle multiple interests in the Middle East, a revolutionary moment is not a time for nuance. If you want to win the respect and trust of people in the region, as Obama set out to do in his famous speech in Cairo, and one day those people risk prison and death to challenge their authoritarian regimes, then on that day you must be clearly, unequivocally on their side, or they are not going to hear you.

A final thought: Obama didn’t make or break the Arab Spring. But the Arab Spring is Obama’s first-term foreign-policy legacy. This is not what realists in the administration expected. But the democratic upheaval in the Middle East is the only major global development in the last four years that is shifting the course of history and that the United States has been able to affect for better or for worse.

Nothing else compares. The Middle East peace process is stalled (all the more reason for the administration to be seen addressing other sources of tension between the United States and the Arab world). Afghanistan and Iraq have preoccupied the administration, but those are old commitments being wound down, not positive efforts to build something new. The "Asia pivot" may be a wise adjustment in priorities, but it has not yet produced significant achievements. The win the administration most often cites, the democratic opening in Myanmar, is hopeful, but has nothing to do with the U.S. decision to focus more on the Pacific. It happened because Myanmar was never part of America’s geopolitical calculus in Asia — it was the only country in the world toward which successive presidents, including Obama, pursued a policy devoted overwhelmingly to the pursuit of human rights.

The embassy attacks are not the beginning of the end of the Arab Spring or of America’s engagement with it. They may mark the end of the beginning. We all know now, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when it all started, that the authoritarian foundations of the region are "sinking into the sand" and that from Morocco to Iran, people will seize every chance to bury them deeper. But the hardest challenges lie ahead: ending the atrocities in Syria and stabilizing the country after Bashar al-Assad is gone, brokering political reforms in a dangerously divided Bahrain, consolidating democracy in Egypt, building a state from the ground up in Libya.

Experts will tell Obama that the United States has limited influence over all these developments. I hope he will tell them that he pays his experts to help him use that limited influence as creatively and effectively as possible. If he is reelected, I hope he will own his legacy and double down on the effort to make it a successful one.

Tom Malinowski is a candidate for the Democratic nomination in New Jersey's 7th congressional district. He served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President Barack Obama, from 2014 to 2017. Before that, he was Washington director for Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @Malinowski

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola