Don’t Surrender Libya to the Terrorists
As we mark the anniversary of the death of Chris Stevens, there are some in Washington who'd like to turn the drones loose on Benghazi. Here's why that would be a bad idea.
The world is preparing for the possibility of U.S. military action in Syria — or for a last-minute deal that will stave off the need for war. That’s a big and important story; I get why we’re all fixated on it. But it’s not the only one out there. Even as the promise of the Arab Spring fades, there are still places where the countries of the West can intervene to powerful effect. Without using bombs.
We’re about to mark the first anniversary of the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya. Obama’s critics will once again seize upon the incident as proof of an administration cover-up. Some in the American media will look at who’s to blame and whether they can be brought to justice. That’s understandable — especially considering that some of the prime suspects have been enjoying their freedom in Benghazi, where they’ve been giving interviews to the media. The weak central government in Tripoli has been noticeably reluctant to do anything about it — probably because leading officials are painfully aware that they have neither the investigative resources nor the forces to challenge the hold of Benghazi’s powerful local militias.
The U.S. Justice Department has indicted several suspects, including Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged ringleader of the attack, as well as several fellow members of his Ansar al-Sharia militia. Some in the U.S. intelligence community have apparently been thinking about taking the assassins out — motivated by the failure of the Libyan authorities to move against these men. This past Sunday, a news show moderator challenged White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on the issue, pointing out that plenty of reporters have been able to find Khattala while U.S. law enforcement agents don’t seem to be able to do the same: "The United States government does what it says, and we will do what we say in this instance, as we do in every other instance," McDonough replied. Not a very satisfying answer, to say the least.
I’m not a politician, so I have the luxury of giving a somewhat different answer. If Americans want to live up to the admirable legacy of Christopher Stevens, we should do what we can to help Libyans build the kind of democracy they want — and not do anything that might derail that process.
Libya is not Afghanistan, it’s not Pakistan, and it’s certainly not Syria. It’s a country whose people, with a bit of help from the outside world, fought for eight bloody months to overthrow their dictator. It’s a country whose people then voted in a fair and free election for a government led by secular political parties. It’s a country where opinion polls show that a majority of the population — a solid 83 percent, according to the latest survey from the National Democratic Institute, believe that democracy is the best form of government. And it’s a place where people (in stark contrast to, say, Egypt) still have a largely positive attitude towards the countries of the West. All this means that Libya still has a real shot at becoming a strong and healthy democracy.
As I saw during some of my own recent reporting in the country, the biggest problem that Libyans face right now is the lack of security. Armed militias call the shots just about everywhere, and the government’s power is wan by comparison. The radical Islamist militias like Ansar al-Sharia are, by every indication, deeply unpopular. After Stevens’s murder, tens of thousands of angry Benghazi residents took to the streets to protest the attack, forcing Ansar al-Sharia to clear out of town. Unfortunately, though, the militias have guns; most ordinary people don’t. Earlier this year, Ansar al-Sharia unrepentantly returned to Benghazi, where it has since been pushing back against its rivals elsewhere in the city. Security has dwindled accordingly. Car bombings and assassinations are unnervingly frequent.
Let’s say that the U.S. launches drone attacks on Stevens’s killers (as some of the recent media reports seem to suggest it might). How will Libyans react? I’m just guessing, but I think it pretty likely that the militiamen will stylize themselves as martyrs, plucky victims of the American hyperpower. They’ll be sure to point out that the attack underlines the powerlessness of the government in Tripoli, and that this effectively makes Libyan citizens the playthings of arbitrary decisions made by a foreign government thousands of miles away. The public will be enraged, the terrorists will get a boost in prestige, and the elected government will be humiliated. This is exactly what a fragile democracy doesn’t need. (It’s hard to exaggerate how monumentally unpopular America’s drone war is in other parts of the world that have been subjected to it.)
There’s a better way. The murder of Stevens prompted the diplomatic missions in Libya to pull back into their shells by intensifying security and, in some cases, reducing staff. This is understandable but short-sighted. With all the problems it now faces, Libya desperately needs help if it is to succeed in its transition to democracy. This is the time for the countries that wish the country well to ramp up their assistance.
I’m not the only one who thinks this way. A group of leading Libya experts (including, I’m happy to say, FP‘s own Mohamed Eljarh) have just sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that advocates exactly that. In the key passage from the letter, the signatories recall that Kerry himself recently assured Libyans that "the United States will continue to stand with Libya during this difficult time of transition," and urge him to live up to that pledge by "reaffirming and increasing engagement with Libya and bolstering U.S. support for its transition to democracy."
The letter notes five areas where the U.S. can make a crucial difference — for example, by lending expertise to the process of writing the new constitution and by supporting the current "national dialogue" among a wide range of representatives from Libyan society. Among other things, the experts recommend that Washington help the Libyans to develop their security sector (especially training for the nascent Libyan army) and reform the judicial system. That’s exactly the right approach.
And it’s all eminently viable. It’s important to remember that the chances for success are still good. Libya has a small population and a lot of oil wealth. Helping its people won’t need huge pots of cash (the price of a few Tomahawk missiles would more than suffice). Nor does Washington have to go it alone. The Europeans are eager to do their part (and have a strong interest in doing so, given the threats of illegal immigration and terrorism that will ensue if Libya is allowed to become a failed state). But it will take a renewed commitment from everyone involved. A bit more coordination probably wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.
It’s important to remember that this is not a situation where a relatively strong central authority is tacitly allowing terrorists and insurgents to reside on its soil. If we can help the Tripoli government to consolidate itself, we’ll make it much more likely that the Libyans themselves can bring Stevens’s killers to justice. Supporting such an effort would be the best possible advertisement for the rule of law — and it would also be an apt commemoration for an ambassador who is still fondly remembered by so many in Benghazi. I doubt that drone strikes will make quite the same impression.