Nearly three years ago, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waved a peace sign to cameras in Tripoli as she celebrated the U.S.-aided overthrow of the kleptocratic government of Moammar Gadhafi. Clinton claimed victory for her philosophy of "smart power," the self-regarding name for bombing people on behalf of rebel groups in a war that would be cheap and easily forgotten.
That wasn't long ago.
Today, Libya has two nominal governments that pretend to preside over an anarchic, stateless region that is being pillaged and harassed by terror gangs. One parliament, dominated by non-Islamists, meets in Tobruk, an eastern city 1,000 miles away from Tripoli. An Islamist-dominated parliament, previously elected, does meet in Tripoli, but is hardly in control there; Operation Dawn, an Islamist rebel group, seized control of Tripoli's airport this week, setting the place ablaze. And Operation Dawn isn't even the biggest "winner" on the ground; that honor would probably go to Ansar al-Shariah, another Islamic extremist group. Meanwhile, the country is also reportedly being bombarded by Egyptian and Emirati airstrikes, according to The New York Times, as the conflict goes regional.
Depending on how you count them up, Libya has had five or six "governments" since 2011, all of them unable to impose any semblance of order on a country that probably never should have existed in the first place. The moments of relative calm in Libya over the past three years have only come about when nominal officials were busying themselves trying to tap the nation's oil money, and when the sectarian and tribal factions were roughly in balance.
Libya has no pleasant history. King Idris, who led Cyrenaican nationalists in World War II, cried when the great powers of the world added rule of Tripolitania to his list of duties. In 1969, "Colonel" Moammar Gadhafi took power in a coup, and the institutions of the officially socialist state were largely reduced to a program of keeping the Gadhafi family rich. Many sources on the internet will claim that Libya had solid democratic institutions, like government-run education. Despite a literacy rate that climbed to the highest in the region, experts say the education system stagnated in later years of his rule, and that Libyan university graduates make up a majority of the unemployed. Moreover, money generated by the energy economy flowed mostly to the incompetent and connected. And there was hardly any domestic economy, just rentiers, crooks, and poor-dependents, with loyalties dispersed through a tribal system.
The U.S.-abetted chaos in Libya had the immediate effect of encouraging a cleansing campaign against foreign workers in Libya. And, as Daniel Larison has repeatedly pointed out, it has nearly destroyed one of its neighboring states, Mali, which has experienced a spillover of militants since the NATO intervention. In Mali, as an avoidable civil conflict rages, U.N. peacekeepers are still being killed, and children are being held in prison with adults.
The decision to launch airstrikes on Libya was made in about 96 hours, by self-described "humanitarians" who took up the emerging international norm of "responsibility to protect" as their reason for war. To the applause of Bernard-Henri Levy and other munitions-grade faux intellectuals, they argued that Western governments had a duty to use military resources to help civilians who were being abused by their governments. Not in North Korea where the masses starve, or Zimbabwe where hyperinflation was rampant and the unemployment rate was nearly in triple digits, but wherever there seems to be a winnable civil conflict, with plausible-looking good guys who can be taught to say "democracy" and "human rights."
In the most obvious form of moral hazard, this pernicious "R2P" norm lowers the price of civil war in the developing world, encouraging rebels to make provocative attacks, then lobby for Western air support when the local bad guy punishes them for it. Uncle Sam or NATO deploys resources in a civil war these rebel groups could never win with their own blood and treasure. They often fail to win even when they do get help. The expectation of Western air power has exacerbated and intensified conflicts in Serbia, the Sudan, Libya, and Syria. As an international norm, R2P adds nothing but a noble-sounding gloss on getting more people killed than usual.
"Smart power" never existed. The phrase was nothing more than a two-news-cycles slogan of self-flattery for sophomoric Washingtonians trying to explain how much more human-rights-protecting and rational their bombs were than George W. Bush's. A decent society would send these Responsibility to Protect advocates to march the streets of Tripoli with "smart power" written on their backs like a "Kick me" sign.
But Americans don't care about how many gas fires we set so long as other people are inhaling the fumes. They will likely elect Madam Smart Power our next president. Every tin-pot nation that exists on the edge between order and chaos should live in fear of the legates she sends waving peace signs at cameras.
[Correction: This article originally misreported Libya's literacy rate. It has since been corrected. We apologize for the error.]