Libya Is Trump’s Latest Chance to End An ‘Endless War’
It has been nearly a decade since the United States via NATO intervened in Libya with airstrikes contributing to the ouster and death of former dictator Moammar Gaddafi. In the years since, the North African nation has been further torn apart by warring would-be rulers and, in ensuing vacuums of power, extremist groups including the Islamic State.
This week, Libya’s violence spiked. “The security realities on the ground in Libya are growing increasingly complex and unpredictable,” said Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command. U.S. troops were pulled from the capital city of Tripoli—news which may have caught many Americans by surprise, as few likely realized we had still had troops in Libya.
Indeed we did, though given congressional negligence on the matter, even the well-informed may be forgiven for not realizing Libya remains on Washington’s roster of endless, undeclared wars. Still, now that via this evacuation the subject has been raised, it is time to say: Yes, we are still intervening in Libya. No, this is not necessary to American security (or, it seems, particularly helpful to Libyan security). And instead of a temporary, partial evacuation, this should be a permanent departure.
In theory, the Trump administration ought to be amenable to such a move. President Trump made a point in this year’s State of the Union address to decry “endless wars,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged negotiations among fighting Libyan factions by correctly arguing “there is no military solution to the Libya conflict.” But in practice, as this week’s pseudo-withdrawal has made evident, this White House has continued all its predecessor’s interventions, Libya (and Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen) included, maintaining the very military “solution” it ostensibly realizes cannot work.
Beyond the mismatch of rhetoric and policy, this intervention should be ended for its disconnect to American defense and, from the 2011 bombing campaign on, its total failure in its stated purpose of helping the Libyan people. On both counts, Washington’s war in Libya has much in common with its military meddling elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa: It is costly and reckless—putting U.S. troops needlessly in harm’s way and generating new opportunities for mission creep and avoidable conflict—while unhelpful or even counterproductive in its purported aims.
For Libya specifically, the quietness and apparently small scale (we do not know how many U.S. boots are on the ground) of the intervention highlights its lack of necessity to keep Americans safe. Libya's chaos is certainly not desirable, but it is arguably best characterized as a civil war, a regional conflict whose outcome will not pose anything close to an existential threat to the United States, thousands of miles and an ocean away, already guarded by the world's most powerful military several times over.
We do not need to be in this fight—and neither do we have cause to think our involvement is likely to make things better. As a policy brief published by Harvard’s Belfer Center concluded, the 2011 intervention in Libya backfired in its humanitarian and security goals alike: “NATO's action magnified the conflict's duration about sixfold and its death toll at least sevenfold, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors.”
The misery of these unintended consequences most directly “falls on [Libyan] civilians and other innocents,” notes National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty this week. “All the talk about America’s ‘responsibility to protect’ is useless if our policymakers cannot or will not learn a lesson about their responsibility not to harm.”
This evacuation allows us to recognize that however well-intended, U.S. military intervention in Libya has done more harm than good. Prolonging this forgotten war further will not balance those failures and in fact, stands a real chance of exacerbating them. The Trump administration should seize this moment to give Pompeo's rejection of a military solution some real heft. Let us lead by example and bring U.S. troops home from Libya for good.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at TIME Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.