The Collapse of Libya and the Failure of 'Smart Power'

Guy Benson

9/1/2014 12:01:00 PM - Guy Benson

When conservatives criticize the Obama administration over the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks, much of the attention is trained on the security failures preceding the raid, the dishonest public spin campaign after the fact, the lack of accountability nearly two years later, and the still-unanswered questions on a host of fronts.  But that lethal event was merely a symptom of the White House's broader, unraveling foreign policy.  The president intervened in Libya in 2011, deploying US military resources to help a rebel fighting force depose and dispatch murderous dictator Muammar Gaddafi.  The Libya conflict was paradigmatic of Obama's approach to war: 'Leading from behind,' aerial bombardment, extremely light footprint.  War from the air.  War without Congressional approval.  And war, in this case, with no clear strategic objective.  The result of that conflict was, in Obama's judgment, an example of how the international "community is supposed to work," as he declared at the time.  Lesson: Libya was a model of how "smart power" leads.  Well, the struggle to fill the power vacuum triggered by Gaddafi's fall has raged ever since the US "won" in Libya.  The victors, it appears, are many of the radical Islamists that America aided in toppling the regime.  The country has been awash in hardcore radical elements, with Benghazi emerging as a Jihadi hotbed.  When terrorists sacked the US compound on 2012's anniversary of 9/11, that massacre was merely the most high-profile evidence of Libya's descent into ungovernable chaos.  Today, several years on, the journey to full-blown failed state status seems to be complete.  Radicals have seized control of much of Libya's capital city, including the international airport, and -- as Matt noted over the weekend -- the abandoned US embassy:

And Benghazi, for those interested, also remains a bubbling cauldron of violence and mayhem.  The terrible status quo in Libya that we helped to uproot has given way to an even worse reality on the ground.  What was the core American national security interest at stake that justified our involvement there?  Yes, Gaddafi was slaughtering elements of his own population, some of whom were Islamist rebels, so perhaps there was some humanitarian interest -- but what was our geopolitical strategy for life in Libya after Gaddafi?  By the looks of it, there wasn't one.  We intervened minimally, then hoped for the best.  We failed to secure our personnel in Benghazi along the way, perhaps in order to keep up those all-important 'light footprint, no boots on the ground' appearances.  There was no strategy.  In Syria, the president drew a red line against the Assad regime, threatened an air campaign when Assad repeatedly defied it, then failed to follow through on his public threats.  Obama's escape hatch was an accidental policy of chemical weapons disarmament, which we're now told has been successful.  Buying that line requires (a) ignoring the fact that multiple deadlines were missed along the way as chemical weapons were used again, and (b) believing that all of Assad's illegal weapons were throughly catalogued and handed over, which seems highly unlikely.  Again, there was no strategy. One year later, the president is weighing military options in Syria, but this time in de facto support of Assad, against his malignant enemies.  In the fight against ISIS -- which quickly metastasized from a JV squad into a "cancer," in Obama's parlance -- the president openly admitted on Thursday that "we don't have a strategy yet."  The White House has been flailing to walk that phrase back ever since it escaped the Commander-in-Chief's lips, but those efforts are in vain.  The candid admission confirmed every stereotype of his foreign policy: Reactive, aloof, dithering, feckless and incoherent.  On that score, click through to this tough Washington Post analysis of Obama's foreign affairs meltdown.  Read the whole thing, or else you'll miss criticism from a prominent Senate Democrat, and an administration source touting Obama's Iran policy -- yes, this Iran policy -- a "perfect example" of "disciplined" and successful diplomacy.  An excerpt: 

As events cascaded, Obama juggled rounds of vacation golf with public statements addressing the conflicts. But his cool demeanor, and the split-screen imagery of a president at play and at work, seemed ill-matched to the moment. Then came a Thursday news conference and a comment that only reinforced criticism of a president neither fully engaged nor truly leaning into world problems. Speaking of the Islamic State, he said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.” The statement may have had the virtue of candor, as Obama weighs the military and diplomatic components of a U.S. response and seeks support from other nations. But it hardly projects an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness at a time of international turmoil….events seem to have spun out of his control, and Obama must react to the actions of others. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has sparked the greatest East-West crisis since the Cold War. Islamic State advances have swallowed up a large swath of the Middle East and threaten a global upheaval far beyond the shock of al-Qaeda’s 2001 attacks.

As the crises mount, so do the excuses:

Jim Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Obama’s inability to inspire confidence among critics has more to do with the complexity of the problems than the president’s leadership style. “He has a sort of perfect storm of messy problems, lousy options, ambivalent allies and a skeptical public,” he said….[Historian David Kennedy] said that Obama, in dealing with multiple crises, also is trying to change perceptions of what U.S. leadership and any president can realistically accomplish. “It’s difficult virtually to the point of impossibility to have a grand strategy in a world that is so fluid and in which we no longer yield the power we once had. In a sense that is Obama’s strategy, a recognition of that fact. So that rhetorically as well as in reality, he’s trying to diminish the expectation that we can control events.”

These points have merit to some extent.  But the posture, attitude, leadership, priorities and policies of the President of the United States aren't irrelevancies.  The quote from the foreign policy analyst above wrongly suggests that Obama's actions have had nothing to do with the messiness of the problems, the lousiness of the options, the ambivalence of our allies, or the skepticism of the public.  He's just the victim of events.  Kennedy's assessment that Obama is simply recognizing America's diminished influence for what it is absolves the president of presiding over, if not encouraging, that new reality.  When America abdicates its leadership role in the name of "smart power," people take notice.  When American chooses weakness and rudderlessness, unscrupulous global actors sense an opportunity to step into the resulting void. Obama's apologists are reduced to suggesting that America has become ungovernable on the domestic front, and that the world is hopelessly complex and messy on the geopolitical front.  Obama hasn't failed as a leader, they insist; new realities have failed him.