To the shores of Tripoli ... “
— The Marines’ Hymn
Two hundred and nine years after Marines visited those shores, dispatched by President Jefferson to punish Barbary pirates for attacking U.S. vessels in the Mediterranean, Marines are again in that sea, poised to return. If they are sent ashore, their mission will be to rescue U.S. citizens from the consequences of U.S. policy. Then they might have to do the same thing in Baghdad.
The House Select Committee on Benghazi should not consider the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi its sole or even primary topic. Rather, it should begin at the beginning, with the U.S. military intervention in Libya’s civil war 18 months before Benghazi.
Today, Libya is an anarchy of hundreds of rival militias. The U.S. intervention, for which Barack Obama’s phrasemakers coined the term “leading from behind,” was justified by “R2P” — the “responsibility to protect” Libyans, especially in Benghazi, from the supposed threat of genocide inflicted by Moammar Gaddafi. This humanitarian imperialism quickly became an exercise in regime change. But the prolonged attempt to assassinate Gaddafi from the air made no provision for a replacement regime.
The Benghazi committee should hear from Alan J. Kuperman of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. In his policy brief “Lessons from Libya: How Not to Intervene,” he says:
Gaddafi did not initiate violence against peaceful protesters. Rather, protesters initiated the violence that engulfed four cities.
Media reports “exaggerated the death toll by a factor of 10, citing ‘more than 2,000 deaths’ in Benghazi during the initial days of the uprising, whereas Human Rights Watch (HRW) later documented only 233 deaths across all of Libya in that period.”
Furthermore, when the U.S. and a few other NATO nations intervened in March 2011, “Gaddafi already had regained control of most of Libya, while the rebels were retreating rapidly toward Egypt. Thus, the conflict was about to end, barely six weeks after it started, at a toll of about 1,000 dead. ... [The intervention] enabled the rebels to resume their attack, which prolonged the war for another seven months and caused at least 7,000 more deaths.”
The intervention encouraged peaceful protesters in Syria to use violence in the hope of attracting an intervention. This increased the rate of killing there tenfold. And since Gaddafi fell, “sophisticated weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenal — including up to 15,000 man-portable, surface-to-air missiles unaccounted for as of 2012 — leaked to radical Islamists throughout the region.”
Perhaps including Iraq. The Benghazi committee is organizing as Iraq crumbles, its army disintegrating as the enemy approaches. In January, Fallujah fell to forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaeda affiliate. ISIS’ conquest of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city (its population of 1.5 million equals that of Philadelphia), then Tal Afar, is redundant evidence that the U.S. experience in Iraq was the worst episode of squandered valor in U.S. history.
Some will say that it would not have come to this if the Iraqi army had not been disbanded, or if there had been better occupation planning, or if there had been a bigger occupying force, or if an agreement had been reached to keep a significant number of U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely, or if ...
Enough. Here is a question for Republican presidential aspirants:
Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that 10-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings — given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?
Barack Obama is conducting the foreign policy retreat he promised, that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton facilitated without apparent qualms, and that many Americans said they wanted until it began to make them queasy. The Republican challenge is to articulate a policy that fills the vast space between this retreat and the ruinous grandiosity of the “freedom agenda” of Obama’s predecessor.
Americans prefer not to think about, and rarely allow elections to turn on, foreign policy. Events, however, are not cooperating.
Trotsky probably did not really say this, but someone should: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.