Why is Libya so lawless? The BBC asks the same question in a recent article. The answer needn’t be more than a single sentence: Ask Hillary Clinton.
At the time of writing this article, the United States and other allied countries are being forced to evacuate their citizens and troops as a warlord marches to Libya’s internationally recognized capital. All this after a liberal humanitarian intervention in 2011, hundreds of thousands of dollars of aid, a slave trading and human trafficking hub, and mass migration to Europe.
Now, once more, people are sounding calls to intervene in Libya to stop any war, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Bleeding heart liberal interventionists, loathe to provide $5 billion to guard the southern U.S. borders against an overwhelming number of unvetted noncitizens fraudulently abusing U.S. asylum, are taking up old tactics of humanitarian concerns to promote another open-ended war spending billions more in Libya to supposedly bring about a liberal democracy. Nothing, needless to say, could be more damaging to that already dangerous scenario, and conservatives in the Trump administration would do well to avoid this “do something!” trap.
Realists Know This Won’t Work
Before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there was a weeklong meeting in the Politburo. It was a time immediately after the high-flying ’70s, when the West was battered by Vietnam and economic downturns. Moscow was at the peak of its post-war power, with most of Africa, Asia, and Latin America as clients.
A few military advisors, however, were skeptical. Hard-nosed realists argued against Soviet troops on the ground, mentioning that Afghanistan is a semi-feudal country and there wouldn’t be any short-term intervention. However, ideologues in the Politburo, with their success in African civil wars against colonial Europeans, managed to convince Brezhnev that “there is no land in the planet, which is not worthy of flying the red flag.” The rest—Soviet imperial overstretch, economic collapse, and eventual disintegration—is, as they say, history.
Fast-forward 40 years, the same arguments were there unopposed during planned interventions in Libya in 2011. Some prudent conservatives opposed it. Conservatism dictates order over chaos, and conservatism understands that different regions have different cultures, and history that shapes those cultures, and not every land is suitable for a foreign-imposed immediate liberal democracy, which took roots in the West due to hundreds of years of cultural dialogue and tradition.
Earlier realists like Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick understood this simple realpolitik. But post-Cold War western foreign policy was shaped in the early ’90s triumphalism. With the fire of Arab Spring still fresh, liberals decided no lands on the planet are not fit for a dose of James Madison.
The realpolitik argument, on the other hand, was simple. Muammar Gadhafi was a brutal tyrant, but he was also a brutal authority, in a land that has historically never been united without brutality since the times of Rome and Carthage. In a land as sparsely populated as Libya, and with more than 140 rival tribes, toppling an authoritarian would pry open one of the last vestiges of authority in the entire north African coastline, and turn the region to chaos.
To his partial credit, President Obama initially dithered over the liberal calls and appeals to emotions—and was skeptical of Britain and especially France toppling Gadhafi. Nevertheless, the urge to “do something,” constantly egged on by an activist media, and with Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power around, was too much to resist.
The result is that there is no central authority in Libya (which is more tribalistic than ever), and the land is a fertile ground for human traffickers acting hand in hand with activist nongovernmental organizations to bring about hundreds of thousands of military-age men from Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, which is leading to terror attacks, crimes, failing social security systems, and a rise in political radicalism. In short, everything that happened in 2016 happened because Hillary went and saw, and Gadhafi died, to rephrase her own words.
The Post-Mortem on the Libyan Fiasco
The British House of Commons’ report on the Libyan fiasco, the only proper full investigation done after the intervention by a bipartisan committee, was quite possibly the most scathing thing ever written, in the most polite and British way possible, of course. One sentence of many that stuck out:
The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight. Libyan connections with transnational militant extremist groups were known before 2011, because many Libyans had participated in the Iraq insurgency and in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda.
The fact that the intervention had no purpose other than liberal hubris was clear as well: “intervention in Libya was reactive and did not comprise action in pursuit of a strategic objective. This meant that a limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means.”
Put simply, we went into Libya without knowing what we were doing, where we had zero interests. We helped Islamists, who took advantage of our liberal sentiments, and toppled a brutal (but secular) dictator, and opened the floodgates of chaos on an important coastal zone. Sounds familiar?
History repeats as a farce, and there’s a simple reason for it. Most humans are emotional and optimistic; they feel compelled to think this time will be different. Conservatism is, however, shaped by a realistic and informed understanding of human nature and history. It might not be predicated on fiery oratory or rhetoric, but calm realism, restraint and prudence. A deep skepticism of ambition and capability is the baseline of conservative philosophy.
An attempt to shape the entire world in our mirror image is Utopian liberal internationalism. There’s nothing conservative about radical Wilsonianism, and it is no different than radical Trotskyism.
History judges people regardless of the conventional wisdom of the times. It is in that spirit that we should do nothing in Libya. There’s no strategic interest for us in spending billions of dollars and pounds in Libya. The only interest the West has in Libya is to have stability, order, and equilibrium, regardless of who provides it (and how brutal those methods are). Realpolitik therefore dictates that the West should be ready to cut a deal with whomever gets in power in Tripoli.
Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a writer for The Federalist. His research is in great power-politics and neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.