Another missed opportunity on Benghazi

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This (now consensus) reading of events implicitly calls for America to reinforce the post-9/11 trend of securitizing our presence abroad rather than helping societies in transition build coherent institutions. It also fails to utilize a great national tragedy such as the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens to conduct a thorough strategic re-assessment of the reasons the U.S. is involved in places like Libya and what our policies should be moving forward.

Rather, the current consensus discourse is anchored in a series of misconceptions. At the December 20 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) revealed his “nuanced perspective” describing the elected post-Qadhafi government as “a coalition… which includes some of the most evil jihadist elements imaginable.” Such invective is a vast mischaracterization of a country that six months ago held successful elections where the Islamist parties were roundly defeated and where America is held in the highest regard of any Arab nation according to polling from the Pew Research Center.
 
Given the state of (mis-)understanding of Libyan realities on the Hill, it is unsurprising that Congress seeks to treat the new Libyan government as untrustworthy partners and therefore seek to securitize our bilateral relationship. This is exactly the wrong policy. It certainly would not have prevented fifty jihadists armed with rocket launchers from incinerating the Special Mission in Benghazi.

After reflection on the facts, the incoming secretary of State should reject this Beltway consensus and instead empower our diplomats to open training facilities, hospitals, and American cultural centers – as Ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi to do. He understood the nature of the risks he faced in travelling to Benghazi, yet he also knew he needed to be there to promote America’s interests and to serve the Libyan people.

Perversely, the “nation building” paradigm has become so stigmatized in Washington that politicians fail to grasp that in certain countries like Libya the population and government are positively crying out for U.S. capacity-building assistance. It behooves us to go the extra mile to help, because securing a successful transition in post-Qadhafi Libya is a core strategic interest of the United States for three key reasons.

Firstly, economics. Libya holds the largest amount of oil reserves in Africa, yet it produces less than half as much crude today as it did in 1970. American companies (and America’s profound interest in global energy security) could benefit enormously from participating in the upgrading of Libya’s dilapidated oil infrastructure as well as the mega-projects using Libya’s sovereign assets towards building housing, hospitals, and universities. Without security, foreign investment will avoid the country and Libya’s oil output and project spending will stagnate.
 
Secondly, counter-proliferation. Libya is currently awash in arms. The impotence of the central government means that rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns flow into jihadist hands in neighboring states. Already Qadhafi’s ouster has led to a successful Tuareg separatist movement in Northern Mali, which was promptly hijacked by Al Qaeda-affiliated elements. The Libyans need training and outside assistance to secure their borders.
 
Lastly, and most crucially, democratic institution-building. The Libyan people yearn to breathe free. They are currently engaged in a process of constitution-writing and the creation of national institutions. The Libyan people actively desire outside assistance in bolstering their army and police forces. Only after the Libyan central government has sufficient professional manpower can it stop relying on the militias.

Therefore, rather than engaging in the blame game and securitizing our relationship with Libya, Congress should unveil a package of targeted capacity-building assistance. We share many objectives and values with the Libyan people and their current leadership. Helping them build their country and construct functional institutions is a far better investment for our scarce resources than any state-of-the-art fortified compound.

Pack is a researcher at Cambridge University, president of Libya-Analysis.com, and editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (Palgrave Macmillan Forthcoming).