WASHINGTON — Inside the Beltway, Libya is the name of a scandal, not a country. But right now, Libya the country has a chance to right its course in its difficult transition to democracy. United Nations talks among the warring factions have come close to yielding a new unified government. For this achievement to produce meaningful results, Libya will need help from the international community, including the United States. But is anyone in Washington paying attention?
There is the House Select Committee on Benghazi, of course. But Thursday’s spectacle, in which former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified, focused on events that occurred three years ago. None of our leaders in Congress or in the administration seem to acknowledge the need to help Libya right now. And as the leading Democratic presidential candidate, Mrs. Clinton isn’t providing much guidance either, despite her commitment in the past. Instead she’s fending off partisan attacks from her Republican antagonists.
Libya is of crucial strategic importance to the United States. Geographically, it is a gateway to and from Africa. The Islamic State is beginning to establish a foothold there, and if it gets hold of the country’s enormous oil wealth, the results will be disastrous. Libya can either be a helpful, stable ally to the United States or a failed state, awash with displaced persons and a base of operations for terrorists.
As the Washington lawyer and adviser for the Libyan opposition during its struggle against the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, I worked with Christopher Stevens, then the United States envoy to the Libyan opposition. Chris was a tireless advocate for supporting Libya. After the fall of Colonel Qaddafi, he was rewarded for his commitment and named the United States ambassador to Libya.
The last time I met with Chris was in the embassy in Tripoli in July 2012, just a couple of months before he was killed. He spoke about how fragile the transition was in Libya and how much he worried about the growing unrest in Benghazi. He knew the risks involved in traveling there, but went because he felt he needed to remain engaged.
The loss of Chris Stevens was a double blow to United States policy. First, he was the most knowledgeable United States official on what was happening. Second, in the aftermath of the attack that took his life, Libya became radioactive in Washington circles. Nobody wanted to touch it. When I visited the embassy in Tripoli shortly after Chris’s death, the embassy staff had shrunk to single digits, guarded by 150 Marines. It was a fortress, not a facility for engagement.
United States policy never recovered. Though Mrs. Clinton must continue to defend herself against the select committee’s charges, she could and should pivot to a discussion of policies on Libya that will better protect American interests in the future.
Mrs. Clinton has much to be proud of. As she pointed out in the CNN debate, she was one of the chief architects of the NATO intervention that saved tens of thousands of lives and freed Libya from the grips of Colonel Qaddafi’s brutal 42-year dictatorship. That would have been a signature foreign policy achievement for Mrs. Clinton and President Obama had the United States not disengaged in Libya. Mr. Obama conceded this in his recent speech to the United Nations: “Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind.”
But Libya is not a lost cause. The United Nations talks are close to an agreement with the various factions. A majority of Libyans still yearn for stability and democracy, as a recent poll shows. Yet Libya needs outside help to institute the reforms necessary to make a new government a success. Most important, the United States must coordinate assistance from the international community and ensure that regional players in the Middle East are not supporting militias and other forces that destabilize the country.
The United States can also strengthen the capacity of the government by providing training programs and advisers for key ministries, especially those that need to rebuild the economy and restore legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Along with NATO, the United States should help train and equip Libyan security forces to keep the peace and stave off the growing presence of the Islamic State. A failure by the United States to lead now could mean that Libya moves closer to a failed state and becomes the home that the Islamic State is looking for in Africa.
Do not expect the investigations and recriminations over what happened in Benghazi to end soon. But isn’t it fair to ask our politicians, so driven to find the truth about Benghazi, to dedicate some of their attention to developing a strategy for the United States to help Libya get back on course?
David Tafuri is a partner at Dentons, a law firm, and a former State Department official. He was legal counsel to the Libyan opposition and then Libyan government from 2011 to 2014.
Source: The New York Times