— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 28, 2014
Outside observers are often tempted toward a one-dimensional reading of Libya’s turmoil. It is easy to trace Libya’s breakdown as a political struggle between Islamists and liberals: The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party and more rejectionist, jihadi factions like Ansar al-Sharia versus the “liberals” under the National Forces Alliance (NFA). Another level of conflict seems to be regional: A contest between the towns of Zintan and Misrata for economic power and political leverage in Tripoli, or amongst federalists and their opponents in the long-marginalized east. Yet an additional layer is between remnants of the old order – ex-security men, long-serving and retired officers, former Gaddafi-era technocrats – and a newer, younger cadre of self-proclaimed “revolutionaries,” often Islamists, who were either exiled and/or imprisoned during the dictator’s rule.
Elements of all these dimensions are at play, but none of them alone has sufficient explanatory power. At its core, Libya’s violence is an intensely local affair, stemming from deeply entrenched patronage networks battling for economic resources and political power in a state afflicted by a gaping institutional vacuum and the absence of a central arbiter with a preponderance of force. There is not one faction strong enough to coerce or compel the others.
Meanwhile, Friedersdorf lays into the hawks who supported our role in overthrowing Qaddafi:
When Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis declare that the cost of intervening in Libya was “$1.1 billion for the U.S. and several billion dollars overall,” I can’t help but think that GiveWell estimates that one of the most efficient mosquito-net charities saves a life for every $3,400 that it spends. That’s 882,352 lives saved for the cost of the Libya campaign. Given present conditions in Libya, how confident are we that the NATO-aided ouster of Qaddafi saved even half that many lives? Development aid is far from perfect, but my instinct is that it saves lives more reliably than wars of choice and virtually never results in violent blowback.
Most of all, I am struck by the willingness of prominent interventionists to have publicly declared their instincts in Libya vindicated when the country’s future remained very much in doubt, as if they couldn’t conceive of an intervention that would result in more lives lost than the alternative even as the possibility of that outcome was extremely plausible. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Washington, D.C. foreign-policy establishment seemed to perform no better at foreseeing how events would unfold than non-expert commentators who simply applied Murphy’s Law. At the very most charitable, the common interventionist claim that Libya vindicated them in their dispute with non-interventionists was wildly premature. Perhaps the lesson to take from the NATO campaign is that even the most thoughtful interventionists have no idea how geopolitical events will unfold.