Libya’s long-running civil war has taken a new turn in recent weeks after the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord launched an offensive against would-be strongman Khalifa Haftar, pushing him and his Libyan National Army out of Tripoli and a number of near-by strongholds. But anyone who thinks that peace is at hand after nine years of anarchy and collapse should think again. Odds are all but certain that all it will do is introduce new chaos into a country that has already seen more than its fair share.
But before we speculate about the future, let’s pause for a moment to consider the past and how the craziness began. When historians conduct their post-mortem analyses, chance are good that they’ll zero in on one date in particular – Apr. 13, 2011. That’s the day Barack Obama welcomed Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar, to the White House. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had just spent weeks lining up support for the effort to topple Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in the wake of the Arab Spring. But in mid-March, she decided that the coalition was too western, too Euro-centric, for delicate post-colonial sensibilities, and so she set out to woo energy-rich Qatar as well. When Al-Thani at last agreed to come on board, his reward was an audience with His Coolness himself, the U.S. president.
But Obama should have paused before leaping into the unknown. Although Qatar enjoys a benign reputation thanks to its extensive economic and cultural ties with the west, its political profile has long been strangely bifurcated – liberal in some respects, increasingly Islamist in others. By the late 1990s, it was making a name for itself as a center for the ultra-austere branch of Islam known as Salafism. By 2003, reports were growing that local charities were funneling money to Al-Qaeda. But Washington paid little attention. How could such reports be true if Qatar was helping to depose the Gaddafi, long a thorn in the side of American imperialism? If he was working in behalf of U.S. hegemony, which is to say the ultimate good, didn’t that mean that he had to be good as well?
Such is the cartoonish mindset that prevails in Washington. After privately conferring with Al-Thani, Obama then paraded him before the press. “I expressed to him my appreciation of the leadership that the emir has shown when it comes to democracy in the Middle East,” he told reporters, “and, in particular, the work that they have done in trying to promote a peaceful transition in Libya.… He’s motivated by a belief that the Libyan people should have the rights and freedoms of all people. And as a consequence, Qatar is not only supportive diplomatically but is also supportive militarily.”
At which point, some emperor-has-no-clothes type might have popped up to ask: how can an absolute autocrat like Al-Thani care about rights and freedoms in Libya when it denies such privileges to his own people at home? A few hours later, Obama offered a few comments at a Democratic fundraiser in Chicago that were picked up by na open mike.
“Pretty influential guy,” he said of Al-Thani. “He is a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East. Reform, reform, reform – you’re seeing it on Al Jazeera.”
Then he added: “Now, he himself is not reforming significantly. There’s no big move towards democracy in Qatar. But you know part of the reason is that the per-capita income of Qatar is $145,000 a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict.”
Immense energy wealth – adjusted for inflation, oil prices at the time were pushing $130 a barrel – evidently means that Qatar gets a free pass when it comes to democratic niceties that other countries are expected to observe.
But Obama was wrong about what all that money would do. Rather than tamping down conflict, it fanned it. Using his position in the U.S.-led alliance serving for political and diplomatic cover, Al-Thani seized the opportunity to distribute an estimated $400 million to Libyan Salafist rebels in the form of machineguns, automatic rifles, and ammo. Within months, insurgents were hoisting the maroon-and-white Qatari flag over Gaddafi’s once-impregnable presidential complex in Tripoli.
The result was bedlam. Even though Libya would eventually elect a national parliament, gunmen flush with Persian Gulf cash forced it to adopt a host of Islamist “reforms” – burkhas, gender segregation, compulsory hijabs at universities, the works. Islamists went on a rampage, killing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in September 2012, kidnapping Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in October 2013, kidnapping a group of Egyptian diplomats the following January, and then storming the national parliament two months later, shooting and injuring two lawmakers. The Obama administration thought of punishing Qatar by holding off military assistance and the like. But after objections from both the Pentagon and the State Department, and the administration held its tongue. A Libyan politician named Mohammed Ali Abdallah would later say of the Americans:
“They created the monsters we are dealing with today, which is these militias that are so empowered they will never subordinate themselves to any government.”
Quite right – and those monsters have only grown bigger and more vicious as the years have passed. So why did the U.S. allow a close ally to overturn the apple cart? One reason is incompetence, but another is America’s longstanding alliance with Sunni extremism. Remember – rather than merely cooperating with such elements, America helped call them into existence by partnering with the Saudis to create an anti-Soviet holy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Even though the effort left Afghanistan in ruins, the pattern has repeated itself again and again in Bosnia, Syria, Yemen, and Libya as well. Whenever Americans intervene in the Muslim world, Sunni jihadis backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf oil monarchies invariably follow. Despite occasional blowback in the form of 9/11 and other such incidents, the U.S.-jihadi alliance has continued without major interruption.
The result in the case of Libya is a black hole where a more or less functional state used to be. Since geopolitics abhor a vacuum, outside powers can’t resist throwing themselves into the fray. But not only are Islamists on the GNA side – they are increasingly prominent in the Haftar camp as well. Since such elements are ultimately loyal only to their paymasters in the gulf, deepening chaos can be the only result.
Keep that in mind as the anarchy in Libya intensifies and spreads, leading in the worst-case scenario to a military blow-up between Turkey and Russia, which is among Haftar’s prime supporters. While no one knows how far the process will go, we have a good idea of how the breakdown began – with Barack Obama’s belief that money would buy peace. This is how corrupt oligarchies think. But it made no sense then, and it makes even less now that energy prices are crashing through the floor and the region is sliding deeper and deeper into ruin.