President Barack Obama said his worst mistake in nearly eight years in the Oval Office was “failing to plan for the day after - what I think was the right thing to do - in intervening in Libya,” during an interview with Fox News on Sunday.
In this assessment, Obama is near but ultimately off the mark. For while the worst mistake of any presidency is almost always up for debate, Obama’s error in Libya was not primarily a failure to plan the aftermath of his intervention.
On the contrary, though he may never quite admit it, the real mistake was his decision to intervene in the first place.
US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton make their way through the Colonnade to deliver a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House September 12, 2012 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke on the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya which left US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American dead. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
There is ample evidence that Obama is unhappy with how his intervention turned out. Indeed, it’s a theme he has touched on repeatedly, commenting two weeks ago to the BBC that, post-Libya, “a lesson I now apply when we're asked to intervene militarily [is]: Do we have a plan for the day after?”
And about two weeks before that, in The Atlantic’s lengthy foreign policy profile of the outgoing president, he expanded on the notion even further. In the run-up to intervention, Obama said, “we worked with our defense teams to ensure that we could execute a strategy without putting boots on the ground and without a long-term military commitment in Libya.” And “we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected,” he continued, but “despite all that, Libya is a mess.”
“Mess is the president’s diplomatic term,” The Atlantic added, noting that the saltier language Obama uses in private describes a situation—Libya in 2016, marked by no united government, ongoing violence, and a growing infestation of ISIS fighters—Obama believes exists “for reasons that had less to do with American incompetence than with the passivity of America’s allies and with the obdurate power of tribalism.”
Much like whatever day-after planning the Obama administration apparently failed to do, there is no doubt that the behavior of America’s allies and the people on the ground in Libya contributed to its stubborn turmoil. But the far more significant contributing factor, and the one Obama is unwilling or unable to recognize to this day, was his initial decision to launch America (already stretched thin with military engagements across the Mideast and North Africa) into yet another unwise intervention.
This, more than the aftermath, is the move that got Libya to its present state of chaos - or, at least, that didn’t stop it from arriving there while entangling the United States in what is rapidly proving to be another expensive, endless, fruitless quagmire. And perhaps most galling of all is the fact that Obama seems to believe that with a little more planning for the day after (which, to be honest, is merely another name for the nation-building he decried before taking office), western intervention in Libya might have turned out substantially differently.
There is no evidence in recent history that this is true. As Ed Krayewski argues at Reason, “It's hard to imagine what kind of planning, short of installing a dictatorial puppet regime, would've prevented the power vacuum in which subsequent instability has thrived.”
It is some small comfort, I suppose, that Obama - for the few months we have left with him - will not launch another reckless intervention without pausing to consider how to clean up the subsequent mess. But just as failure to plan for the aftermath is not Obama’s worst failure, remembering to nation-build should not be his (or any future president’s) primary takeaway from Libya. The real lesson is to avoid making a mess of another nation at all.
Even with the best of intentions, it is neither wise nor safe to soft-pedal the results of such rash interventions. We must soberly examine the consequences of failed projects in Libya and elsewhere to develop from those mistakes a prudent and effective foreign policy.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation, contributing writer at The Week, and a columnist at Rare.
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