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Glenn Garvin: Remember the lessons of Libya

  • Miami Herald
  • Published Friday, Sep. 13, 2013, at 12 a.m.

If you were playing buzzword bingo with friends during President Obama’s address on why it’s a good idea to lob a few missiles at Syria, I sure hope you didn’t get a card with a space marked Libya. That’s a word the president hasn’t uttered once as he lobbies Congress to go along with his plans for an attack on Syria.

Libya, if you recall (and he certainly prays that you don’t), was the president’s last experiment with creating democracy through the innovative use of high explosives. It’s now known within the administration as the Intervention That Dare Not Speak Its Name, because Libya is a complete mess that’s getting worse by the day.

The idea in Libya was that we’d fire a few rockets over Moammar Gadhafi’s head to teach him a lesson about shooting civilians, then be on our way. No long and expensive war, no regime change, just a quick but firm rap on the knuckles. Change the names Gadhafi and Libya to Assad and Syria, and it’s practically identical to what Obama is saying now.

But literally nothing in Libya worked out the way the president said it would. U.S. involvement lasted not a few weeks but eight months and cost $1 billion. The few rockets turned into hundreds of missile strikes and bombing runs. The assurances that we weren’t planning a regime change – which rang hollow from the start; you don’t fire cruise missiles at somebody to signal your neutrality – ended in the capture and murder of Gadhafi by the rebels we supported.

Standing at the end of his trail of broken promises, Obama was far from abashed. “The Libyan intervention demonstrates what the international community can achieve when we stand together,” he declared in August 2011, boasting that “the power of people striving for freedom can bring about a brighter day.”

Those ringing words are practically the last the president has even spoken about Libya, for good reason. If he gave a speech about the place today, it would probably sound more like a recent headline from the British newspaper the Independent: We all thought Libya had moved on – it has, but into lawlessness and ruin.

Post-intervention Libya is a witch’s cauldron of crime, corruption and terrorism. Armed militias roam the countryside like martial motorcycle gangs, shaking down anyone they please. Government security forces are too weak to do anything about it and, in any event, preoccupied with their own brigandage. The daughter of Libya’s imprisoned spy chief recently was snatched by one police force away from the custody of another.

Civilians know better than to raise a peep about any of this: Three dozen or so who mounted a protest outside the barracks of a militia in eastern Libya a few weeks ago were killed on the spot. Human Rights Watch has barely been able to keep track of the wave of political assassinations in recent months. Even the most trivial political disputes escalate to mayhem. A heart surgeon who tried to carry out government orders to fire a hospital director was savagely beaten and then jailed by security forces.

Yet these may soon be regarded as Libya’s good old days. Wildcat strikes by mutinous refinery workers have brought Libya’s oil industry, the heart of its economy, to a virtual halt. From the 1.6 billion barrels of oil a day the country pumped under Gadhafi, production has dropped to 150,000 a day, less than half of what’s necessary just to pay government workers. What’s left of the Libyan government is surviving on cash reserves, which officials say will run out by the end of the year. We’ll see how the power of people striving for freedom copes with that.

All this chaos and suffering have not exactly enhanced the reputation of the Western powers who helped depose Gadhafi. Along with the assault that left four Americans dead in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, there have been terrorist attacks on British, French and European Union diplomats. Both the United States and Great Britain have pulled most of their diplomats out of Libya.

Last week, Obama, trying to make his case for attacking Syria, said Congress needed to remember the lessons of World War II. I’d say the president needs to remember the lessons of Libya: that the Middle East is fraught with ancient religious, ethnic and tribal rivalries only dimly understood in the West. That they erupt in unpredictable and vicious ways when the balance of power is upset. And that there’s probably a better way to deliver a prescription for peace and prosperity than in the payload of a Tomahawk missile.

Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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