In a Fox News interview last Sunday, Obama was asked about his “worst mistake.” It’s a classic gotcha question, but he had an answer ready. “Probably failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, in intervening in Libya.” This was yet another act of presidential contrition for the NATO operation in 2011 that helped to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi but left the country deeply unstable. In 2014, Obama said: “[W]e [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this. Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions.” In recent interviews with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg on the “Obama Doctrine,” the president bluntly said the mission in Libya “didn’t work.” Behind closed doors, according to Goldberg, he calls the situation there a “shit show.”
What went wrong? Obama has placed the responsibility on the entrenched tribalism of Libyan society, as well as the failure of America’s NATO allies to step up to the plate. Blaming the Libyans and Europeans may be satisfying, but it misses the deeper reasons for the debacle, which are rooted in how Americans think about and fight wars.
The Libya intervention marked the third time in a decade that Washington embraced regime change and then failed to plan for the consequences. In 2001, the United States toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan but gave little thought about how to stabilize the country. In a memo to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld early in that campaign, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feithargued that Washington “should not allow concerns about stability to paralyze U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban leadership. … Nation-building is not our key strategic goal.” With the Taliban on the run, decision-makers in Washington behaved as if the mission was over. A year later, in 2002, there were just 10,000 U.S. troops and 5,000 international soldiers trying to provide security to a population of about 20 million. With the new government in Afghanistan unable to provide basic services outside of the capital, the almost inevitable result was a Taliban recovery, which set the stage for today’s stalemated conflict.