How foreign policy could matter in presidential politics this fall

Andrew Malcolm
·4 min read

If anyone wonders why Iran and North Korea are not falling for Western demands to surrender their nuclear weapons programs, recent events in Libya — and a historic double-cross — offer powerful evidence and object lessons for nations monitoring the twists of United States foreign policy.

True, the pandemic panic and its ubiquitous media coverage have meant that few Americans have been pondering foreign affairs that don’t involve China in recent months. But perhaps they should.

Last week, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien issued an unusual warning. He said the U.S. is “deeply troubled” by increased fighting in Libya and opposes “foreign military involvement, including the use of mercenaries and private military contractors, by all sides.”

You probably weren’t aware of the ongoing deadly conflict that’s killed thousands there since 2011 when Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama launched bombing attacks to oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who was then executed by a mob.

Gaddafi was a great connoisseur of unusual hats, but not a benevolent fellow. His regime, you may recall, was behind the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. But his stable rule and ruthless power were a major reason why al Qaeda, ISIS and other malefactors were not roaming the dunes there training thousands of terrorists to export into Africa and beyond, as they are now.

Active American military involvement around the world has not worked out well in modern times. Think Vietnam and Afghanistan, which originally was supposed to oust the Taliban that allowed Osama bin Laden to plan and rehearse 9/11 there.

Vietnam claimed 58,200 American lives and Communist North Vietnam swallowed the South anyway. So far since 2003, 2,451 American troops have died in Afghanistan, and the U.S. is attempting to negotiate a withdrawal with the very same resurgent Taliban. Regional warlords there are reportedly arming for an anticipated civil war once the U.S. pulls out its last troops.

Voter displeasure with such unsuccessful military involvements was a significant pillar of strength in 2016 for Donald Trump, who promised to end them.

O’Brien’s stressed that the Trump administration was pursuing diplomatic, not military, efforts with all parties struggling in Libya, which now include Turkey, Egypt, Russia and the UAE, among others.

What a change from the spring of 2011 when, as he embarked on a South American tour with his wife and mother-in-law, President Obama mentioned that U.S. planes had joined European forces in bombing Libya to get rid of Gaddafi. The professed reason was the ruler’s “threat” to shoot civilians adjacent to an internal rebellion. The real reason, of course, had more to do with access to Libyan oil.

Strangely, the subsequent actual machine-gunning and gassing of innocent civilians by Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad prompted only empty Obama “red-line” threats.

Here’s where the diplomatic duplicity comes in: Gaddafi seized power in 1969 and began a nuclear weapons program almost immediately. In late 2003, under mounting international pressures, the eccentric Libyan ruler relinquished his nuclear program in return for Western promises to leave him alone if he did.

But by 2011, the U.S. and others had changed their minds. It took a few months of allied bombing, but eventually Gaddafi fled into a drainage ditch, where a mob caught him and delivered its death sentence. Later that day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously exulted, “We came. We saw. He died.”

In an espionage side note, it was subsequent access to Gaddafi’s surrendered equipment that enabled U.S. and Israeli experts to develop the devastating Stuxnet virus planted in Iranian computers in 2010 that crippled its uranium enrichment program for a time.

The Libya area has actually been a historic thorn in America’s side. That North African coast was home for more than two centuries to the notorious Barbary pirates, who routinely captured merchant ships, ransomed their crews or sold them into slavery. In the early 1800s, when the newly United States had rebuilt its navy, first President Thomas Jefferson and later James Madison made a point of neutralizing the Muslim brigands militarily. Hence, “the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Corps hymn.

Then, of course, came Sept. 11, 2012, as a leaderless Libya descended into failed-state status. A well-organized Libyan mob, armed with mortars already sighted in, stormed and burned the U.S. consulate and annex in Benghazi, killing four Americans, including the ambassador.

Despite warnings, security had been reduced. No reinforcements were dispatched. No rescues were attempted. No one was ever held responsible. Obama was inexplicably AWOL that entire night, but emerged the next day to vow swift justice, which so far involves one arrest.

Days later, Obama dispatched his U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to all the Sunday talk shows, where she dutifully delivered the administration’s main talking point that the consulate attack was merely a spontaneous reaction to an obscure anti-Muslim YouTube video.

That claim, of course, proved totally bogus, which torpedoed Obama’s plans to name Rice as Clinton’s State Department successor. Now, we hear Rice is on the short list to become Joe Biden’s running mate.

Funny how all these little pieces of history, many involving Libya, come back around to play recurring roles in U.S. domestic politics and foreign diplomacy.