Just under four years ago, the international community sprang into action on Libya, with the noble aim of stopping atrocities against civilians by Moammar Gaddafi's powerful and ruthless regime, which was facing a revolt. France, backed by NATO and in support of a no-fly zone approved by the U.N. Security Council, fired its first shots against Gaddafi's forces on March 19, 2011. Britain and the United States soon became deeply involved.
Things seemed to go well. By Sept. 15, 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron were in Tripoli, being greeted like rock stars. A little over a month after that, Gaddafi was killed in the western city of Sirte. Video of him just before his death — bloody, bewildered and humiliated — spread around the world.
But since that triumph, it's pretty evident that things didn't exactly pan out. Libya is in chaos, close to being a truly failed state. There's little central authority in the country anymore (for a period, the impotent-yet-internationally-recognized government was forced to hold its meetings aboard a car ferry). Well-armed militias control vast areas of the country.
Now, just as things couldn't look any worse, the Islamic State has made its presence felt in Libya — in a particularly gruesome fashion. On Sunday, the extremist group's Libya branch released a video that shows the killing of 21 Egyptian Christians. It was clearly a provocative act, designed to show that the Western world's most feared enemy was not only expanding from its "caliphate" base in Syria and Iraq, but also doing so in a country within arm's reach of Europe.
There's no argument about it: Western intervention in Libya helped create the situation that the Islamic State is now exploiting. To make matters worse, Gaddafi — an odious, rightly loathed dictator — had predicted in 2011 that something along these lines would happen if his government fell. So, does the infamous 'Pottery Barn rule' — "you break it, you buy it" — now apply in Libya? Don't count on it. The odds for a Western military operation in Libya look extremely low.
In France, President François Hollande has ruled out any solo military action in Libya and offered plenty of caveats for France to join any international action. "We're not yet going down that road," he told France 24 in January. Domestic concerns about his own unpopularity and the specter of January's attacks in Paris probably factor into his cautious approach.
Cameron, who recently said he did not regret Britain's role in toppling Gaddafi, has kept quiet about potential intervention. Libya was once a source of pride for the British prime minister, but it has become a frequent source of criticism in recent months — a dangerous prospect ahead of an election that looks increasingly tight for the British leader.
The United States, already deeply involved in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq (another Pottery Barn rule candidate), might seem the most logical to intervene in Libya. But the Obama administration has shown no sign it will. Notably, the United States has said that it would not be "condemning nor condoning” Egypt's strikes against what it said were Islamic State positions in Libya. Again, domestic politics probably are a big factor here.
Without these three actors' involvement, it's hard to imagine many other European nations going into Libya. The German military's funding troubles have recently become the stuff of ridicule. Italy, clearly the most spooked European nation thanks to its geography and its historical links to Libya, has slashed its defense budget almost a quarter since 2009. The crisis in Ukraine and fears of a belligerent Russia are keeping much of Europe's military infrastructure preoccupied.
As Christopher Chivvis, a political scientist at the Rand Corp., wrote for Foreign Policy this week, the international community seems to be following a de facto containment policy in Libya, leaving military strikes to Arab states such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The hope seems to be that some kind of political solution can be found to create a stable Libya, which in turn would create a situation in which extremist groups such as the Islamic State could be defused. The Pottery Barn rule doesn't seem to apply to Libya (much like how it doesn't actually apply in the store mentioned in the expression, the Pottery Barn).
There's none of the bravado of 2011 in the West's new tactics in Libya, but at least it acknowledges the mistakes made four years ago. Libya, an oil-wealthy nation just across from Europe, could have been a post-conflict success story. Instead, with little Western help in reconstruction or state-building after a devastating war, the country slowly slid into chaos.
In an interview with the New York Times last year, President Obama acknowledged that these failures in Libya affected the way he thinks about military intervention. "So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’” That's the question being asked right now.