It's not too late for the US to disrupt disaster in Libya

Watching the movie “The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” which recounts the horrific and barbaric killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, one cannot help feeling overwhelmed by anger at pointless loss. 

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens lived his life as if there had been no Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. He was constantly out and about, befriending locals from all walks of life, communicating with them in Arabic, always seeking to listen at least as much as he spoke. We see him jogging, joking, charming and winning over ordinary Libyans. He served unhindered by the post-9/11 security constraints that trapped diplomats in walled embassy compounds. 

For people who have never been to the United States, Stevens embodied the best of American values: Friendliness, directness, openness to new people and new ways.

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His abominable murder by ideological extremists in Benghazi seems all the more shocking the more than you learn about his life there. When Stevens and three other Americans were killed when more than 100 armed militants stormed their chain-linked compounds, the U.S. government was inevitably drawn into Libya’s politics — which drew in other powers, including Russia, one of America’s geopolitical rivals, and Turkey, which ruled Libya until 1918. Civil war followed as different nations backed different armed factions.

Today, those who fought for power with cartridge boxes now face the ballot box. Tripoli is still ringed by Turkish forces and military leader Khalifa Haftar is still connected to Russian mercenaries. Who guarantees that the vanquished will accept the verdict of the ballot box? No one. Indeed, the election results may prompt a new cycle of attacks.

It is time to look at Libya with fresh eyes. To stop seeing it as an unstable Arab land, but instead to view it as a threat to Mediterranean security. Constant war in Libya poses a threat to Europe through migration and terrorism. The civil war drew thousands of foreign fighters, including mercenaries, from Syria and Sudan — if they moved to Europe, the result would be devastating. Ask the Germans and Poles on the Belarus border. More worrying for NATO, an estimated 2,000 Russian Wagner mercenaries continue to be entrenched with advanced fighter jets that threaten NATO's southern flank. 

Also, the character of the candidates does not suggest domestic tranquility. The son of Libya’s former dictator, Saif Al Islam Gaddafi, is one such candidate. His father was well known for strange megalomania and savage repressions as well as illicitly pocketing billions of Libyan oil revenues meant to benefit his own people. In the end, he is wanted by International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and hunted on the streets for crimes against decency.  

Can the son of a dictator build a democracy? Democracy requires leaders who govern themselves, who restrain their impulses for revenge, who patiently listen to their rivals. Does Gaddafi’s son have those qualities? Are they so deeply embedded that they will not vanish in times of stress or conflict? To ask these questions is to answer them. 

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Gaddafi’s candidacy sends a bad message to the Arab world. Ten years later, the old dictatorship returns in the body of his demagoguing son. And it fits a sad pattern. Tunisia, long cited as an example of democratic transition, now suffers tremendous tremors that could produce anarchy. In Syria, Bashar is, more than ever, the master of Damascus. So, the Arabs hear this terrible message: There is no point in revolting, you will only have a dictatorship. No matter what you do, the dictators always return. 

Two poisonous things follow from that fatalistic message: A resigned support for suicide-bombings (and violent utopian ideologies) and a strengthening belief that America is at fault because it “allows” the dictators to rule. Thus, in the desert, blooms support for terrorism and anti-Americanism. 

Yet, here is an opportunity for the Biden administration. Dissuade Gaddafi from seeking office or help his opponents defeat him. Work for peace in Libya and encourage foreign fighters to go home. Fight for free trade between Libya and the world, because when goods move, people do not have to. Promote stability to spark foreign investment. 

The State Department has diplomats in the mold of Chris Stevens. The White House needs to drive to do big and important things in Libya. Because, if the Biden administration does nothing, we all know what happens next. 

Ahmed Charai is a publisher of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. He is on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council, an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.