U.S. Policy Failures Come Full Circle in Libya
Policy + Politics

U.S. Policy Failures Come Full Circle in Libya

REUTERS/Hani Amara

Another day brought another crisis to the Middle East, with the fragile Libyan government weighing whether to call for foreign troops to help it turn back the Islamists who are battling for control of the country.

Experiencing some of its worst violence in months, Libya’s capitol city, Tripoli, was in such a state of deterioration that the United Nations evacuated its personnel from the country. Tripoli’s airport, under mortar fire from an Islamic militia, has shut down. Some 90 percent of the planes there have been destroyed, and no international flights are flying in or out of the country. The country is effectively shut off from the rest of the world.

Related: Libyan Mission Over, But U.S. Deeper into Africa

“The government has studied the possibility of bringing international forces to enhance security,” Libyan government spokesperson Ahmed Lamine said on Tuesday.

Yet, international assistance is a long shot. In 2011, the United States and its European NATO allies successfully used a bombing campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi from office. However, after he was killed, both the United States and Europe turned away from Libya. A weak central government has now been unable to control rebel factions within the military.

At the same time, French forces in Mali have forced Islamists into the country’s south. In a bid to win more political and economic power, they’ve pushed into Libya’s north, and are attempting to take Tripoli and Benghazi.

The fight for Libya comes as the Middle East descends towards a holy war for the future of the region. In Syria, Iraq, and now in Libya, radical Islamists are fighting more moderate factions for control.

Related: Here’s the Real Reason Russia Is in Iraq

So far, the United States has been unable to exert influence over events in the region. President Obama’s soft power approach has yet to yield peace or slow the pace of fighting. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the violence in Libya but did not offer any solution for how the US or its allies would act to stop it.

“We are deeply concerned about the level of violence in Libya," Kerry said during a news conference in Vienna on Tuesday following talks on Iran's nuclear program. “It is dangerous and it must stop. We are working very, very hard through our special envoys to find the political cohesion ... that can bring people together to create stronger capacity in the government of Libya so that this violence can end.”

Ill-defined U.S. Interests
Edward Goldberg, a professor at Baruch College and the New York University Center for Global Affairs, says the United States may not have enough at stake to intervene in Libya this time around.

“The U.S. gets less than 2 percent and falling of its oil from Libya,” Goldberg said in an interview.

Related: U.S. Again Misreads the Players in Middle East Crisis

It’s hard to predict how Obama will react to the Libyan situation partly because he hasn’t clearly defined American interests in the Middle East. The president’s regional policy these last few years has been dogged by inconsistencies and missteps.

For instance, the atrocities committed by Gaddafi warranted a military response from the United States. Yet the use of chemical weapons in Syria did not, despite Obama’s warning that their use would be a “red line” that would draw a military response. In Iraq, years of disconnect from Washington have led to the current crisis; it remains to be seen what, if any, role the American military will play there.

“As we have learned from Iraq, we need to clearly define our interests,” Goldberg said on Tuesday. “There is now a conflict in the [United States] between what is now needed in globalized foreign policy and the old cultural political demands of saber rattling.”

European Response?
Unlike the U.S., Europe has a clear interest in a stable Libya. In 2010, 22 percent of Italy’s oil, 16 percent of France’s oil, and 23 percent of Ireland’s oil came from the country.

So far, European capitals have remained tight-lipped on Libya. Goldberg said that the United States could get involved if NATO or individual European nations decide to act to stabilize the country.

“The economic health of Europe is important to the United States,” he said. “President Obama had clearly recognized this in 2011 when he formulated a precedent-setting policy in response to the uprising in Libya. Rather than acting singularly or as the effective leader of the coalition, President Obama chose to work as a political and military minority partner with other nations, particularly European nations, whose economic interests were directly impacted.”

“It is totally logical in a globalized world for the U.S. to subordinate its role,” he added. “It is a policy of mutuality.”

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