David Ignatius
Opinion writer October 25, 2013

For a case study of why America’s influence has receded in the Middle East, consider the example of Libya. Some simple steps over the past two years might have limited the country’s descent toward anarchy. But Libya became so toxic after the Benghazi attack that the United States has been slow to provide help.

When Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan visited Washington in March, he made a straightforward request: He needed U.S. help in training a “general-purpose force” that could protect officials of the democratically elected government and safeguard Libya’s basic services. He explained that, without such protection, government officials couldn’t move safely around the country to do their work.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Helping Libya should be a no-brainer. The United States and its NATO allies spent billions toppling the regime of Col. Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, and they have a big investment in creating a secure state. Instead, Libya has become a nation of lawless militias. Zeidan’s government can’t even hold meetings safely. The United States should have begun training security forces immediately after Gaddafi was toppled. Every day of delay is a mistake.

The Obama administration has approved, in principle, a plan to train 6,000 to 8,000 Libyans outside the country. But the situation in Tripoli is so chaotic that Libyans haven’t yet made a formal request for this assistance. U.S. officials said it won’t start until the spring, at the earliest.

President Obama is said to have decided at a Cabinet meeting this month that “we have not been doing enough” as the chaos grew in Libya and that he wants to “accelerate” assistance, according to a senior administration official. That’s good — better late than never — but it’s an open question whether Congress will let Obama do what’s needed.

Congressional Republicans deserve much of the blame. The GOP has staged more than a year of near-hysterical attacks about alleged failures and coverups involving the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. compound in Benghazi that left four Americans dead. The relentless GOP sniping and second-guessing had the inevitable consequence: Nobody wanted to risk another Benghazi; U.S. diplomats hunkered down at the embassy in Tripoli; and Libya policy went in the deep freeze.

Here’s how bad the Libya phobia has become: When the Department of Homeland Security recently began drafting a rule that would allow Libyan students and workers to come to the United States for education and training, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) thundered that “it is shocking that the Obama administration is turning a blind eye to real terrorist threats that exist in Libya today.” And Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) denounced the move as “unbelievable.”

What continued in the Libya vacuum were secret U.S. counterterrorism operations. These culminated in the Oct. 5 raid that snatched al-Qaeda militant Anas al-Libi in Tripoli and brought him to New York for trial on charges stemming from the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. This was a laudable operation, but counterterrorism is not America’s only interest in Libya.

The raid produced an embarrassing backlash: Zeidan, the pro-American prime minister, was kidnapped by angry militiamen from his hotel in Tripoli and held for hours. The gunmen released him partly because they didn’t want to fight other armed gangs for control of the hostage. Zeidan said he hadn’t approved the U.S. mission, but his cover of deniability was frayed when Secretary of State John Kerry insisted the operation was “legal and appropriate,” implying it had Libyan approval.

My perceptions of Libya are shaped by Duncan Pickard, a student of mine at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2012 who has spent the last year in Tripoli studying constitutional reform for a German nongovernmental organization. He warned in December that the imperative was U.S. training of Libyan security forces to protect government institutions. Nearly a year later, we’re still waiting.

“We are seeing a defenseless government,” says Karim Mezran, a Libyan political scientist and senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Mezran says the situation in his country is so fragile now that NATO may have to send in its own security forces to keep order until the long-delayed training program is ready.

U.S. influence in the Middle East has been declining for many reasons. Some of them, like America’s weariness after a decade of war, or the difficulty in stopping sectarian killing in Syria, don’t have a quick fix. But with Libya, it’s inexcusable to keep sitting on our hands, bickering about Benghazi, while the country goes down the drain.

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