The U.S. is returning to Iraq, but what about Libya?

Mieczyslaw and Kristin argue that, although the U.S military is returning to Iraq, Libya potentially poses a greater security threat to the US. The return to Iraq rather than Libya is partially driven by U.S. domestic politics and a greater role in Libya could be more effective and successful than the new war against ISIS.

Last week, on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Obama announced that the U.S. military would return to Iraq with airstrikes and a “broad coalition” of local and regional partners, this time to destroy a new terrorist adversary, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Obama justified the decision in both humanitarian and strategic terms, and said that the U.S. would also possibly conduct airstrikes on Syrian territory.

The President remained silent on the other disintegrating state in the region: Libya. The U.S. embassy in Libya was recently closed and U.S. diplomats evacuated. Beyond issuing statements, the U.S. seems reluctant to take a more activist role as the Libyan state risks unraveling. This is despite the President’s recent admission to New York Times journalist Tom Friedman that he regrets that the U.S. did not do more to follow up in Libya after the 2011 military intervention against the Qadhafi regime. Iraq, by contrast, was initially cast by the administration as the misguided war. Drawing it down became a hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy.

Why, then, Iraq, but not Libya? The answer to this question casts into sharp relief the role of domestic politics in shaping what is perceived to be the “national interest.”

The very assumption that ISIS is a greater security threat to the US than the complete collapse of Libya requires further scrutiny. In both countries, central states have lost control of large swathes of territory while bands of extremists operate with immunity. And in many respects, Libya is no less strategically important for the U.S. and its European allies.

Libya is a leading oil exporter, extremists who have killed American citizens operate within its borders, and it is a major transit country for illegal migrants, traffickers, and smugglers. Post-Qadhafi insecurity in Libya has been exported to Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Niger, Chad, and Mali, among other countries. And the American Ambassador to Libya and three other U.S. officials were killed by members of an extremist Libyan militia in September 2012.

Although Obama warned in his speech that a handful of American and European citizens now fighting for ISIS could bring terrorism back to their homelands, this seemed a questionable rationale given that American citizens have joined terrorist organizations in other countries too, such as al-Shabab in Somalia

The answers to why the U.S. is returning to Iraq but doing little in Libya lie as much in domestic politics as in strategic considerations. Both countries have become part of the DNA of American public opinion, but in different ways. While Americans once associated Libya with the erratic and brutal leadership of Muammar Qadhafi, it has now become synonymous with the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in September 2012. The endless politicking and Congressional investigations around Benghazi have contributed to limiting U.S. engagement in Libya for fear of another calamity.

Americans hold many bad memories from the Iraq conflict as well. But the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the accompanying images of American journalists beheaded by machete-wielding jihadists, has created the perfect enemy, one that all parts of the American political spectrum can comfortably vilify.  Liberals concerned with humanitarian catastrophe and hawks who advocate military action in the face of strategic threats have found common cause in the destruction of ISIS.

By contrast, the current situation in Libya is complicated, and much harder to package for Congress, much less a skeptical American public. Indeed, the messy and complex struggle in Libya provides no compelling images begging for a response, or easy interpretations. Americans are poorly informed about the internal politics of Libya, and the crisis in Libya lacks a clear enemy, much less images of U.S. journalists getting their heads cut off, or of a Yazidi minority stranded on a mountaintop. Such images, and the easy-to-digest narratives behind them, generate public sympathy and garner bi-partisan support in Congress for an immediate response in Iraq.

The Libyan struggle is for control over resources and power among disparate armed factions with tribal, regional and religious (i.e. “Islamist” vs. “liberal”) sympathies. Due to the weakness of the central state security forces, the militias who are the protagonists of this struggle operate in an atmosphere of near total lawlessness. Libya lacks a central actor possessing a preponderance of force who could act as a negotiating partner in outside mediation efforts.

Domestic politics aside, President Obama is right to re-engage in Iraq to prevent humanitarian disaster. Yet, muscular engagement in Libya could be more successful than the new war with ISIS. Libya has a much smaller and less sectarian population than Iraq, and anti-American sentiment is much less rampant, thanks in part to U.S. support, as part of an international coalition, of the 2011 Libyan revolution.

It was a failure to “finish the job” of building an inclusive government and a competent military in Iraq that helped give rise to the rapid expansion of ISIS and a widening conflict now intertwined with the war next door in Syria.

So too does a failure to follow through in Libya risk creating another regional vacuum ripe for extremism and humanitarian calamity that could draw in outside forces. Already, news reports suggest that the militaries of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have taken sides and intervened in the Libyan conflict. Although ISIS has stolen the media spotlight with its brutality, the conflict in Libya also risks escalating into a wider war.

Obama spoke of the support of a “broad coalition” of partners for US action against ISIS and the same will need to be leveraged in the Libyan case. Especially the geographically proximate Europeans, who consume most of Libyan oil and must deal directly with the results of human trafficking through the country, should be urged to take a much more active role, and the U.S. could exercise its leverage to help ensure they do so. The most important goal in Libya now is to restore security and institute the rule of law, and disarm the militias.

Iraq is important; but so too is Libya. The longer the international community treats the Libyan crisis as invisible, the more prominent it risks becoming.


Mieczyslaw P. Boduszynski is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He formerly served as a U.S. diplomat in Libya.

Kristin Fabbe is Assistant Professor of Government at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, California and a 2014-15 International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign  Relations. She is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Regional and International Studies at the American University in Iraq, Sulaimani.

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