A few years ago, just before NATO began its disastrous armed intervention in Libya, I received a call from Brussels asking me to come on short notice to an EU conference on the matter. (The EU official who invited me, a Frenchman, said, “I assume like most Americans you love France but wish it were not inhabited by the French.”) I declined because I know what such conferences are like.
Instead, I sent a short paper. It could be short because the situation was obvious, written on walls all over Iraq and Afghanistan. NATO intervention in Libya to oust Gaddafi would not merely overthrow his government, it would destroy the Libyan state. Libya would become another Petri dish for non-state, Fourth Generation war entities. That’s just what happened.
Now we’re about to do it again. Worse, instead of trying to destroy a government, we are taking on the mission impossible of creating a state. And we think we can do that by dropping bombs. In January the New York Times reported that
Worried about a growing threat from the Islamic State in Libya, the United States and its allies are … Preparing for possible air strikes and commando raids … ‘It’s fair to say we’re looking to take decisive military action against ISIL in conjunction with the political process’ in Libya General [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph F.] Dunford said. ‘The President has made clear that we have the authority to use military force.’
General Dunford is an intelligent, thoughtful man. But if we deconstruct his statement, it is nonsense.
First, a pinprick campaign of air strikes and commando raids will not be decisive. It has failed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Why are we doing it again? Because it is all the U.S. armed forces know how to do. They could of course invade Libya, occupy it, and try to recreate a Libyan state. But Washington has figured out that yields a very expensive failure. So we will enjoy a bargain-basement failure instead.
Second, the “political process” to which the JCS chairman referred consists of a bunch of exiled Libyan politicians sitting in a hotel room in Tunis. Why not in Libya? Because their lifespans on Libyan soil would be measured in hours. The reality on the ground, to quote the Times, is “a patchwork of Libyan militias that remain unreliable, unaccountable, poorly organized and divided by region and tribe.” Libya is so enamored with parliaments it has two of them, at war with each other. How are airstrikes and commando raids going to make a state out of that? General Dunford said, “military leaders owe the president a way ahead,” but the means they are offering him are ludicrously inappropriate to the task.
So what should we do about ISIS in Libya? Stop being mesmerized by ISIS, or al-Qaeda, or any other Islamic nonstate entity. They will come and go. The problem is the decline or disappearance of the state. We must stop destroying states. We need an alliance of all states against non-state entities. Conflict between states is obsolete in the face of the threat Fourth Generation war poses to all states.
Recognize that the reductionist American way of war, putting firepower on targets, can destroy states but cannot rebuild them. For that, most of the U.S. armed forces are as useless as cavalry divisions or 74-gun ships of the line.
There is another, seemingly improbable but intriguing option, one that answers the question “what would Bismarck do?” If we cannot recreate a Libyan state, perhaps we could import a different state into what was Libya. In other words, re-colonize the place.
Libya floats on a sea of oil. It has a small population divided against itself. Much of the public might now welcome a restoration of order regardless of the source. We need to present Libya not as a problem but as a prize worth taking. But to whom?
Egypt. Egypt needs Libya’s oil and the revenue it brings. Cairo is already militarily engaged there. The Egyptian security services are capable of firm measures. A Libyan province—more likely three—would fit well with the rest of Egypt.
It would be, again, a long shot. But importing a state into Libya has better prospects than using air strikes, commando raids, and exile governments to recreate one. The latter is, however, what we will do, knowing it will not work, adding to the establishment’s long line of policy failures. That, much more than ISIS, is the problem.
William S. Lind is the author, as “Thomas Hobbes,” of Victoria: A Novel of Fourth Generation War.