The Shores of Tripoli 4.

Still, serious problems loomed. For one thing, the post-Qaddafi government guarded its independence. They rejected any international security force. For another thing, a gap opened between the men in suits–the Westernized exiles who had fronted the revolution with the Western powers–and the men with guns—the Libyans who had done what fighting there had been. The men in suits had no influence in the country, while the men with guns dominated the scene. Worse, the men with guns divided between Islamists and secularists. Each faction of fighters just recruited its own group of men in suits to front for them with the Western powers. This put a veneer of Western politics on something very different. Secretary Clinton, to the extent that she still thought about Libya, saw the men in suits as the natural leaders. In fact, brutal factional struggles had already begun among the men with guns.

A third problem appeared in the failure of the gun buy-back program. The State Department had hoped to work through the interim government. The absence of a real government made this impossible. Militias arming for civil war didn’t see the logic of selling their weapons. The Islamist groups continued to receive weapons from Qatar and the non-Islamist groups from the United Arab Emirates. To the extent that the program worked at all, it was by turning the militias into middle-men in a much larger regional arms market. They bought stuff cheap outside Libya, imported the weapons, and re-sold them to the Americans at a mark-up. Other weapons they may just have sold outside Libya. For example, an estimated 20,000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles just vanished. Qaddafi’s weapons have turned up in Tunisia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Egypt, Gaza, and Syria. By Fall 2012, American intelligence analysts were deeply alarmed by the spread of these weapons.

In January 2012, Jibril was out as temporary prime minister, and was replaced by a former engineering professor from the University of Alabama. The professor, perhaps inured to the faculty politics of American universities, warned of the danger of civil war if the opposing factions were not disarmed and pacified with various concessions.[1] Soon, everyone wanted elections. This continued the farce that the men in suits controlled events. In fact, as the American ambassador warned in February 2012, the projected July 2012 elections would be under militia control. As it happened, the victors in the election were factions fronted by men in suits with whom Secretary Clinton was familiar. Jibriil was back in office.

The most pressing problem facing the government lay in the militias. At the very least, the government needed a reliable army of its own to help it face down the militias. On the one hand, it made sense to find a way to integrate the fighters in the militias into a peacetime society. Instead of embracing a plan to give the fighters government jobs or aid in starting small businesses or getting some education, the government merely agreed to put the militia commanders on retainer. On the other hand, the different regions—represented by their individual men with guns—struggled for predominance in the constitution that remained to be written. Violence accelerated.

Secretary Clinton’s instinct to push people around began to run into serious opposition after Libya. She proposed putting pressure on Qatar to halt the flow of arms to Libya. Both the Middle East experts at the State Department and the Defense Department argued against putting the American relationship with Qatar at risk. President Obama supported Clinton’s opponents.

Soon after the July 2012, Libya began to descend into even worse violence. The Islamist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi in September 2011 was merely the most eye-catching—for Americans—incident. The country itself began to fragment into a Western region (with a government supported by Qatar and Turkey) and an Eastern region (with a government supported by Egypt and the United Arab emirates). The break-down of government opened the way for many migrants to try to reach Europe by sea.

[1] See the recent controversy over funding STEM education versus the traditional liberal arts.

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The Shores of Tripoli 3.

In May 2011, Secretary Clinton met some rebel leaders in Rome. Their fight against the Qaddafi regime had stalled. They wanted more weapons to tip the balance. On behalf of the United States, she declined to help. The Obama administration worried that American-supplied arms would end up in the hands of Islamist extremists. (They had reason to worry. In June 2011, one load of arms from the French had fallen into the hands of a former inmate in a CIA “black site” prison.) The rebels went looking elsewhere. By Summer 2011, both Qatar[1] and the United Arab Emirates had emerged as major weapons suppliers to the rebels. Among those rebels were a number of Islamist groups, like those centered on the town of Misurata Cert.[2] As with her warning to the administration that France and Britain would go ahead with attacks on Libya without American participation, Secretary Clinton argued that the US had to participate if it was not to be left behind. Secretary Clinton persuaded President Obama to launch a covert program to arm the “moderate” rebels centered in Benghazi. On 15 July 2011, the United States recognized the rebels’ “Transitional National Council” as the legitimate government of Libya.

In August 2011, Qaddafi’s power-base had begun to collapse. Professional diplomats, like Jeffrey Feltman, were deeply alarmed at what had developed. Qatar continued to support Islamist groups as they maneuvered for power in post-Qaddafi Libya. Mohammed Jibril, the Libyan rebel leader with whom Secretary Clinton had been so impressed in March 2011, flew back and forth between Libya and Qatar to transmit orders. Jibril seemed totally unconcerned about disarming the foreign-armed militias that had—under cover of American air power—“defeated” Qaddafi.[3]

By October 2011, Qaddafi was dead. Secretary Clinton’s myrmidons celebrated her triumph. In an important step that reflected unhappy experience in post-Saddam Iraq, the State Department launched a $40 million program to “secure” (i.e. buy back from the militias) the huge stocks of weapons plundered from Qaddafi’s arsenals. In another important step, Secretary Clinton arranged for the release to the interim government of billions of dollars of Qaddafi’s “frozen” assets held outside the country.

Soon thereafter, Secretary Clinton disengaged from the Libyan issue. Partly, her tenure at the State Department began to wind down (and her preparations for another run at the White House in 2016 began to ramp up). More importantly, the Syrian front in the “Arab Spring” had blown up. Secretary Clinton switched her focus from intervening in Libya to overthrow Qaddafi to intervening in Syria to overthrow Assad. She urged President Obama to arm and train Syrian rebels.

President Obama resolutely refused to become embroiled in Libya as the Bush II administration had become embroiled in Iraq. He wanted the Europeans to take responsibility for Libya, but both France and Britain were pre-occupied with domestic issuers. He also rejected Clinton’s plan to arm Syrian rebels. Secretary Clinton had chosen adherence to President Obama’s wishes at the beginning of the crisis. She declined to change course afterward.

[1] See: “Your mind’s in the Qatar.”

[2] HA! Is art history joke.

[3] Scott Shane and Jo Becker, “After Revolt, a New Libya ‘With Very Little Time Left’,” NYT, 29 February 2016.