Big mistakes in Libya, Syria

October 24, 2012 

There is no doubt President Barack Obama inherited a domestic financial mess from George W. Bush. There is also no doubt that Obama’s successor, either in 2013 or 2017, will inherit a foreign policy mess.

The president’s fatal foreign policy flaw is mistaking consensus for national interest, and nowhere is that more on display than in Libya.

There was little to no American national interest in the deposing of that country’s former dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. Yet Obama was apparently convinced by members of the European Union and the Arab League to provide the military support that led to Gadhafi’s downfall, capture and murder.

I will never shed a tear over his demise, but my heart aches for the souls and families of those whose lives have been forever changed by Obama’s mistake: Ambassador Christopher Stevens and private security officers Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty and Sean Smith. Their lives were lost in vain during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Since the attack, many of us have wondered why so few American troops and State Department security personnel are stationed in the most dangerous outpost for our diplomats. Indications are that the light footprint was at the behest of the Libyan government.

I thought former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s minimalist boots-on-the-ground approach in Iraq taught us that a shortage of force tends to lengthen conflicts. Have we not learned that when power vacuums are created, they tend to be filled by our foes?

This is exactly what’s occurring in Libya. Last week at a symposium, New America Foundation scholar Barak Barfi told author Peter Bergen that evidence will surface that a “foreign component” was driving what happened on the ground during the terrorist attack in Benghazi. Time will tell. But we don’t have to wait to understand that Libya has devolved into another Afghanistan in which a weak central government doesn’t have the means, capability or will to establish security and control outside a few population centers.

Like Afghanistan, much of Libya has and probably will remain under tribal control. And as we have seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan, terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Taliban thrive in tribal-controlled areas.

During congressional hearings in September on the Benghazi attack, Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, site security team officer in Libya from December 2011 until August, testified that al-Qaida had established a larger presence in the country than we had. He also warned the committee about the loss of 10,000 to 20,000 shoulder-mounted ground to air missiles – capable of taking down a passenger airliner – formerly in the control of Libyan armed forces under Gadhafi.

I fear the Benghazi attack will be the opening act of continued deterioration that will only be restored by the introduction of Western troops if Libya is to be saved.

Even worse, I’m convinced the refusal of Syria’s Bashar Hafez al-Assad to give up power was solidified by the events in Libya. No doubt the murder of Gadhafi gave him pause, but more important, Assad observed the U.S. and our allies refusing to commit troops to back up their words. Under these circumstances any dictator in his right mind would choose to hold on to power as long as possible, regardless of the cost in civilian lives.

Given his family history, I’ve never considered Assad a reformer, but before the uprising he wasn’t as brutal as Saddam Hussein had been. The administration’s call for Assad’s removal was a huge mistake because it gave him every reason to defiantly stay on, and the Western powers every reason to get rid of him.

But who will replace Assad? If the anti-Assad allies can’t find an element among the opposition to trust with arms, who could we trust in a post-Assad regime with a military arsenal that includes chemical weapons?

Such are the perils of Obama’s consensus-driven foreign policy.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez ( is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and

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