Libya Blowback and the Mysterious Lack of Prescience of Imperfect But Benevolent U.S. Policymakers

by May 20, 2013Foreign Policy4 comments

An op-ed in the New York Times by Ethan Chorin on the disastrous U.S.-NATO intervention in Libya is a good example of the kind of limited dissent that is permitted in the mainstream discussion.

An op-ed in the New York Times by Ethan Chorin on the disastrous U.S.-NATO intervention in Libya is a good example of the kind of limited dissent that is permitted in the mainstream discussion. Chorin acknowledges that the killing of Ambassador J. Chrisopher Stevens in Benghazi on September 1, 2012 was blowback, but then goes on to argue how wonderfully benevolent the U.S. is, even though it sometimes makes mistakes. Chorin writes that

The biggest American failure … lay in thinking that an intervention in Libya would be easier or less costly than it has proved to be — a judgment that led the United States to think it could go in light, get out fast and focus on the capital, Tripoli, without paying enough attention to Libya’s eastern provinces, where the rebellion began as a call for a constitution and increased civil liberties.

Among the U.S.’s failures are that “we underestimated the regional importance of Libya” and “left ourselves unprepared for the ability of terrorist groups to undermine advances toward civil authority”. But such “failures” should not cause us to question the goodness of the war on Libya itself.

I have always argued that the Western intervention that helped bring down Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was inspired and skillfully executed, and had the potential to do more good than harm. But American policy has suffered historically from the mistaken belief that Libya was at best a sideshow to whatever else was going on in the Arab world. And that assessment may have led many in the American government to think the consequences of an intervention there would be easily contained.

Certainly, they failed to foresee how Libyan arms could fuse criminal and extremist elements and intensify Islamist insurrections in the Sahel and beyond, including the spread of rebellion to Mali and of lethal weaponry to jihadists in Syria and Gaza. The lapse dictated a low priority for stabilization projects in Libya itself. And that inattention, I believe, made an attack on the American compound in Benghazi all the more likely.

So, the “failure” of the U.S. wasn’t that it waged a war to overthrow the Gaddafi regime in violation of the U.S. Constitution and international law, intervening in such a way as to prolong and escalate the violence by backing armed rebels whose ranks included radical jihadists; no, the main “failure” of U.S. policymakers who launched this war was just that they thought it would be “easier” and “less costly” than it turned out to be. See, the U.S. always intends well, but its policymakers aren’t quite gods able to act with perfect omniscience. They, being mere mortals, having simply failed to understand the importance of Libya in the region, and what mere human could have had the prescience to foresee that arming a bunch of jihadists to overthrow a foreign government would result in the region being flooded with arms and destabilized? Who could have known that empowering al Qaeda affiliated extremist groups would possibly result in some kind of blowback such as what happened in Benghazi?

I mean, nobody could have predicted that, right?


“While it seems unlikely at this point that the jihadists could somehow gain control of Libya, if Gadhafi falls and there is a period of chaos in Libya, these militants may find themselves with far more operating space inside the country than they have experienced in decades. If the regime does not fall and there is civil war between the eastern and western parts of the country, they could likewise find a great deal of operational space amid the chaos. Even if Gadhafi, or an entity that replaces him, is able to restore order, due to the opportunity the jihadists have had to loot military arms depots, they have suddenly found themselves more heavily armed than they have ever been inside their home country. And these heavily armed jihadists could pose a substantial threat of the kind that Libya has avoided in recent years…. Should Libya become chaotic and the jihadists become able to establish an operational base amid the chaos, Egypt and Italy will have to be concerned about not only refugee problems but also the potential spillover of jihadists. Certainly, at the very least the weapons looted in Libya could easily be sold or given to jihadists in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, turning militancy in Libya into a larger regional problem. In a worst-case scenario, if Libya experiences a vacuum of power, it could become the next Iraq or Pakistan, a gathering place for jihadists from around the region and the world.” — STRATFOR, “Jihadist Opportunities in Libya,” February 24, 2011

“Calls are growing for a no-fly zone over Libya, but a power or coalition of powers willing to enforce one remains elusive. In evaluating such calls, it is useful to remember that in war, Murphy’s Law always lurks. What can go wrong will go wrong, in Libya as in Iraq or Afghanistan.” — STRATFOR, “How a Libyan No-fly Zone Could Backfire,” March 8, 2011

“The US is fighting two wars in Muslim countries. Since the results have included thousands of dead Americans, a near-bankrupt treasury and a surge in anti-Americanism in the world’s most volatile region, launching a third war might seem unwise. Intervening in Libya would require the US to take sides in a highly obscure conflict. Any group the US helps bring to power would be heavily tainted, and Americans would have to defend it in an explosive environment…. Foreign interventions always end badly. They can sometimes be justified on the grounds that not intervening would produce even worse results, but such cases are rare. Libya is not one of them. No vital American interest is at stake there. In fact, as past interventions have shown, the outcome is likely to undermine the global stability on which the US depends.” — Stephen Kinzer, “Why the US must not intervene in Libya,” The Guardian, March 9, 2011

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has been strongly resistant to a no-flight zone, said in a news briefing after a two-hour meeting of NATO Defense ministers on Libya that military plans for a possible no-flight zone would continue, ‘but that’s the extent of it.’ … Mr. Gates’s aides said his position had not changed from the case he made against a no-flight zone before Congress last week, when he warned that the first step would have to be an attack on Colonel Qaddafi’s air defenses. The aides say that he is concerned about getting into another war in the Middle East and worried about the political fallout of the United States attacking yet another Muslim country, even on behalf of a Muslim population.” — New York Times, March 10, 2011

“As we have discussed, the conflict in Libya could provide jihadists in Libya more room to operate than they have enjoyed for many years. This operational freedom for the jihadists might have an impact not only in Libya but also in the broader region, and one significant way this impact could manifest itself is in the supply of arms…. Arms, ammunition and explosives looted from Libyan arms depots today will likely be serviceable for decades, and the thriving transnational black arms market will provide a mechanism for groups and individuals to sell looted weapons or those received from foreign governments. The bottom line is that weapons from Libya will be available on the black arms market for many years to come…. If foreign powers decide to arm the Libyan rebels, more large shipments of arms may soon follow. Given the durable and fungible nature of arms, these weapons could have an impact on the region for many years to come, and Libya could once again become the arsenal of terrorism.” — STRATFOR, “Will Libya Again Become the Arsenal of Terrorism?” March 10, 2011

“By imposing a no-fly zone over Eastern Libya, the U.S. and its coalition partners have effectively embraced the breakaway republic of Cyrenaica…. As recently as the 1940s, Cyrenaica was an independent emirate, with its capital in Benghazi…. A West Point analysis of a cache of al Qaeda records discovered that nearly 20 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq were Libyans, and that on a per-capita basis Libya nearly doubled Saudi Arabia as the top source of foreign fighters…. Overwhelmingly, these militants came ‘from cities in North‐East Libya, an area long known for Jihadi‐linked militancy.’ …  A WikiLeaked cable from 2008 explained that Cyrenaicans were waging jihad against U.S. troops as ‘a last act of defiance against the Qadhafi regime.’ After the U.S. normalized relations with Qaddaffi in 2006, Cyrenacians believed they no longer had any shot at toppling him: ‘Many easterners feared the U.S. would not allow Qadhafi’s regime to fall and therefore viewed direct confrontation with the GOL [Government of Libya] in the near-term as a fool’s errand…. Fighting against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq represented a way for frustrated young radicals to strike a blow against both Qadhafi and against his perceived American backers.'” — Tim Dickinson, “U.S. Bombs Libya, Helps… Jihadists?!”  Rolling Stone, March 21, 2011

“If the U.S. now demands wholesale regime change, it not only could trigger a humanitarian disaster, it also would signal that Washington is an untrustworthy ally. And it could create a failed or hostile state that poses a greater threat.” — Alan J. Kuperman, “5 things the U.S. should consider in Libya,” USA Today, March 22, 2011

“[T]the al Qaeda presence could morph into an anti-Western insurgency as al Qaeda did in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion.” — Eli Lake, “Freelance jihadists’ join Libyan rebels,” Washington Times, March 29, 2011


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  1. chorin

    As you can guess, no 1000-word OpEd is able to do more than give the most basic sketch of a central point, especially in a situation as complex as this (and yes, there are edits). You engage in hyperbole when you say I “go on to argue how wonderfully benevolent the U.S. is, even though it sometimes makes mistakes.” “Benevolence” is neither the relevant or operative word here, regardless of the wisdom of US policies in this particular case. I’ve also been criticized for (supposedly) being “too” harsh on US policy in my book, Exit the Colonel– which you might find enlightening. I’d urge you to look at some of the statements made by some of the others you quote, whose approach is hardly balanced, and certainly not based on a nuanced read of what was happening before 2011– or any extensive in-country experience. Both wise and unwise decisions were made, both before and after the Libyan Revolution. It is not too late to right/address some of the latter.
    — Ethan Chorin

    • Jeremy R. Hammond

      Well, it’s not hyperbole, since you do argue, as I said, “how wonderfully benevolent the U.S. is, even though it sometimes makes mistakes”. The fact that you yourself don’t use the word “benevolent” doesn’t make my observation any less valid.

      And the problem I point out about your piece has nothing to do with the word limitations of an op-ed. Being limited to 1,000 words does not limit you to criticizing U.S. policy only in terms of the “failure” you attribute to our ever-benevolent policymakers.

      As for the other statements I quoted, whether they are “balanced” or not is irrelevant to the purpose for which I quoted them, which was to illustrate how the consequences were predictable and predicted, which goes back to the “failure” you attribute to the U.S., which in turn goes to my point about your op-ed being an example of the limitations of the mainstream discussion.

      I mean, never mind that the disastrous consequences were perfectly predictable. Never mind that the claim of “humanitarian” intentions in intervening didn’t have a shred of credibility. Never mind that the war was waged in violation of international law and the U.S. Constitution, and impeachable offence for Obama. Etc.

      Like I said, your analysis is a good example of the limits of dissent in the mainstream. I stand by and reiterate that observation. It doesn’t surprise me that some might find you “too” harsh on U.S. policy. But this, too, just goes to my point.



      • ethan chorin

        The quote “wonderfully benevolent” you attribute to me, but those are your words– it appears nowhere in the OpEd. For the rest, again I’d refer those who would like to understand more about the context to the Libya intervention to my book, in which I examine in great detail the arguments for and against intervention, and evaluate its likely consequences, as a function of a set of possible actions (as of August, 2012).

      • Jeremy R. Hammond

        The only one falsely attributing anything to anyone here is your false assertion that I falsely attributed a quote to you.

        As for your book, one has to assume that you adopt therein the same myopic framework in it as you do in the Times op-ed.

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