When the president and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pulled the last U.S. troops out of Iraq, they boasted of a campaign promise kept. Conservative critics warned, however, that if the precarious peace was not nurtured, it would shatter, the United States would be compelled to go back in, and the second time would prove harder and more costly. All three warnings have proved to be accurate, in large part because the terrorist threat has now spread to multiple countries. In the fall of 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cautioned:
If we withdraw prematurely from Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq will survive, proclaim victory and continue to provoke sectarian tensions that, while they have been subdued by the success of the surge, still exist, as various factions of Sunni and Shi’a have yet to move beyond their ancient hatreds, and are ripe for provocation by al Qaeda. Civil war in Iraq could easily descend into genocide, and destabilize the entire region as neighboring powers come to the aid of their favored factions. I believe a reckless and premature withdrawal would be a terrible defeat for our security interests and our values. Iran will also view our premature withdrawal as a victory, and the biggest state supporter of terrorists, a country with nuclear ambitions and a stated desire to destroy the State of Israel, will see its influence in the Middle East grow significantly.
He was remarkably accurate. When the last of the troops were to come out in 2011, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned:
I am concerned that the announced full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of this year will place the stability and security of Iraq at risk and jeopardize the gains U.S. and coalition forces have made over the past several years. I am disappointed that U.S. and Iraqi governments could not agree on a framework that would have allowed several thousand U.S. troops to stay in Iraq to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq and continue the training mission that is vital to Iraq’s future. I urge the Administration not to allow today’s announcement to become an obstacle to further negotiations on an enduring security relationship with Iraq.
We should remain open to renewing discussions to bring back a robust U.S. force at the Iraqi government’s request that can do counterterrorism and support the Iraqi Security Forces. No doubt the Iranian government will seek to capitalize on this development and further extend their nefarious influence into Iraq.
Give him credit as well.
Then there is Libya. There, too, the Obama administration declared victory, proclaiming its minimalist approach was far superior to President George W. Bush’s use of ground forces. The Benghazi attacks on 9/11/2012 demonstrated that the administration’s hands-off strategy was a failure.
By February 2013, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was warning that the situation was worsening further and that the risk the country would be overrun by terrorists was increasing. “It goes without saying that the security situation in North Africa has substantially deteriorated in recent months,” he said following a trip there. “The flow of weapons from Libya has armed terrorists in the region and destabilized at least one government. An increasingly dangerous spread of weapons and fighters across the region is also empowering al Qaeda to take advantage of impoverished and disenfranchised populations and ungoverned territories,” Corker said. “It is clear that the international community needs a real, workable plan to combat the transnational terrorist threat confronting North Africa on a going-forward basis, rather than simply reacting to events as they happen, country by country. Without serious coordination among all affected nations, the threat posed by these groups will intensify.”
The administration did nothing. (It was out looking for individual suspects in the Benghazi attacks, however.) Libya did in fact become a haven for terrorists, one more front in the war against the Islamic State. The State Department in 2014, looking back at the preceding year, found:
With a weak government possessing very few tools to exert control throughout its territory, Libya has become a terrorist safe haven and its transit routes are used by various terrorist groups, notably in the southwest and northeast. The General National Congress has tried to tackle the lawlessness of the southern region by temporarily closing – at least officially – the country’s southern border, and declaring large swaths of area (west from Ghadames, Ghat, Ubari, Sebha, Murzuq, and across a 620 miles off-road east to Kufra) as closed military zones to be administered under emergency law. In reality, however, Libya’s weak and under-resourced institutions have had little influence in that region, and have failed to implement this vague decree, as is evident from frequent ethnic clashes in the area. Instead, tribes and militias continue to control the area, and traders, smugglers, and terrorists continue to utilize ancient trade routes across these borders.
Once again, no coherent strategy emerged. Today, as Max Boot writes:
[The Islamic State] now also has provinces in other countries, most notably in Libya, which has become the second-most important ISIS stronghold. Libya is now home to over 5,000 ISIS fighters headquartered in Sirte just across the Mediterranean from Italy, and they are in danger of gaining control of at least part of Libya’s vast oil reserves.
By all indications, the Defense Department is eager to act against this growing terrorist enclave. “It’s fair to say that we’re looking to take decisive military action,” General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said.
Will we get anything approaching a plan reasonably designed to finally address the problem? So far, the president has launched a few airstrikes. Political talks overseen by the United Nations are of little value and drag on as events on the ground play out. Boot observes:
It’s not hard to see why Obama, a president who came to office in opposition to the Iraq War, would be opposed to another deployment in the Middle East, but in this case, the Pentagon was not proposing ensnaring large numbers of U.S. troops in ground combat. The Pentagon proposal, insofar as it has been leaked accurately, called for air strikes and possibly Special Operations Forces to work with Libyan militias opposed to ISIS.
A smart plan would also include a major component devoted to bolstering the fragile Libyan unity government backed by the United Nations. It is imperative that Libya have a functioning government again; until it does, that country will be wide open to terrorist groups including ISIS and al-Qaeda. Christopher Chivvis of RAND has some valuable suggestions for how the U.S. can flex its muscles as it did in Bosnia, employing airpower and sanctions, in order to create a functioning state. This is something that President Obama shamefully failed to do in 2011 after helping to overthrow the Qaddafi regime, even though the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan clearly showed the dangers of toppling a dictator without building a new government to rule.
So going back, was the Libya strategy — one that Hillary Clinton touted as her own — a “success”? Hardly. It is, just as in Iraq, a lesson that minimalist policies, without an administration that has the patience and political capital to devote to securing the peace, are useless — or worse. Anti-interventionists such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) who want to carpet-bomb and go home (none of that “nation building” for him) repeat the president’s error. The more engaged we are earlier on, the better chance for a positive outcome; when we cut and run (or never make a commitment), things deteriorate and the options look worse and worse.
There is, unfortunately, no easy path to destroying the Islamic State. Telling the American people otherwise is as big a lie as telling them their fear of terrorism is the result of watching too much TV.