Book Review: Unintended consequences

A new book explores the Libyan Civil War, the West’s intervention and how hope and promises turned to hellish conflict.

Muammar Gaddafi 1942 - 2011 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muammar Gaddafi 1942 - 2011
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 2016, a Libyan general named Khalifa Haftar was trying to cleanse the eastern-Libyan city of Benghazi of jihadists and Islamist militias. He had them surrounded. One of his special forces commanders was caught on video executing some prisoners from the battle and an arrest warrant was issued by the International Criminal Court charging the commander with “unlawful deaths.” Several months later, in September 2017, two US B-2 bombers dropped 100 bombs on two Islamic State camps in eastern Libya, killing dozens. Unsurprisingly, the ICC asked no questions about who died in the US bombing.
The juxtaposition of the two incidents, both in Libya – one by a Western power, one by a local commander – are emblematic of the Libyan civil war that erupted after the fall of the brutal dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, with long experience in Libya working for the US government and doing research, provides an excellent and thought-provoking narrative of what happened in Libya after the fall of Ghadafi in 2011. Weaving together the personal stories of those like Salwa Bugaighis, an erudite activist and intellectual from Benghazi, as well as militia leaders, smugglers and migrants, The Burning Shores tries to provide a glimpse into all sides of the Libyan conflict.
Wehrey is strongest in looking at the zig-zag of US policy on Libya, an issue he is intimately familiar with. One of the strongest points of the book is his re-telling of the murder of US Ambassador John Christopher Stevens on September 11, 2012. Unfortunately, Stevens was made famous by his death when he should have been more well-known before for his actions to help Libyans gain independence from the Gaddafi regime. He went to eastern Libya during the rebellion aboard a Greek ship to link up with the rebels and brought optimism to the table through his constant interest in learning more about Libyans and their concerns.
The US never quite figured out what it wanted in Libya. On the eve of the uprising, one of Gaddafi’s sons was touring the US, being lavished with attention and promises to train Libya’s army back home. US diplomats and CIA experts did not expect the country to fall to the Arab spring. They were partnering with Gaddafi to “fight terrorism,” according to the account. Then the Obama administration decided to bomb the very same military units it had once thought to partner with. Gaddafi was pulled from a gutter, sodomized and killed by the rebels. “We came, we saw, he died,” Hilary Clinton said. Obama wanted the Europeans to do more in Libya, since the US was leaving Iraq and dealing with Afghanistan. Instead, the UN and EU talked but did little.
The US thought that elections in 2012 might help things along.
“We did this transition in less than a year, now on to Syria,” one US diplomat thought. The problem was that the Americans saw Libya through their lens of “hardliners” and “moderates” and seemed to prefer the smiling Islamists to other groups. Part of this was ostensibly pragmatic. The Islamists had support on the street and militias. But Washington didn’t seem to understand the chaos, and killings that would come next. Soon the liberals were driven from the country or hunted down and killed.
Into the vacuum came Haftar, a greying general who had lived in the US for decades but positioned himself as a savior come to cleanse the rot. With backing from Egypt and the UAE, and eventually also from the Russians and Western special forces, he broke the back of the militias and drove them from eastern Libya. The author is critical of these achievements, seeing in them the meddling of Gulf Arab states and also critical of the way Haftar as seemed to merely recreate a new military dictatorship.
Western powers certainly tried to help Libya after 2011. A training program for Libyan soldiers went awry when some of them, flown to the UK for training, groped women and raped a man. In Libya, they stole from the very Western governments that were supposed to be helping them. Eventually, the Westerners closed up shop and what remained was Obama’s anti-ISIS campaign from the air and various programs from European countries aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya.
This is a book about Libya, but it’s about much more than Libya. In one incident, ISIS fighters escape Libya for Niger, spreading their terrorism to other countries in Africa. The Libyan conflict sucked in foreign fighters from all over the Middle East and became a proxy conflict of competing agendas between Qatar, which supported Islamist extremists, and the UAE and Egypt, which supported Haftar. The lesson is that what happens in one country in the Middle East does not stay in that country.
One of the downsides of this book is the author doesn’t spend much time looking at the wider implications of his Libya coverage. Nevertheless, any perceptive reader will quickly understand the strands connecting Libya to what happens in Jerusalem, London and Washington.
The burning shores: inside the battle for the new Libya
By Frederic Wehrey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
352 pages; $28.00