Those who blame Libya’s demise on Western actors and institutions obscure the overwhelming responsibility and opportunity Libyans themselves had to shape their own future.

The improbable Libyan revolution has undergone several phases in the past four and a half years: a burst of political activity with the discovery of newfound freedoms; a growing period of divisiveness over the pursuit of political power and the spoils of war; an inability to form a cohesive government to establish basic security and provide economic well-being for a resource-rich country; the outbreak of civil war; and the ensuing political chaos that gave space for Salafi jihadists and ultimately the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to gain influence across the country’s vast territory. Politicians and pundits accordingly look at Libya now through the lens of failure, attempting to identify where the revolution ran off course – or to reinforce the view that intervening in the country was misguided in the first place.

The US Congress has held innumerable hearings on the attacks in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, during which US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. The hearings have grilled American officials not just on the circumstances of security at the US mission, but on the focus of US policy in Libya. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament has initiated its own inquiry into the presumed failures of UK government policy in Libya. Mainstream media, such as the Washington Post, regularly editorialises that the US failed to invest enough in Libya’s post-conflict stabilisation, asserting that this contributed to the current spiral of instability. Most profoundly, US President Barack Obama told Tom Friedman of the New York Times that one of his greatest foreign-policy regrets was not investing sufficiently in Libya after the fall of Muammar Gadhafi and not recognising the extent to which Gadhafi’s regime had stripped Libyan society of all semblance of political culture and civil society.

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Ben Fishman is Consulting Senior Fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at the IISS. He worked for four years on the US National Security Council, including as Director for North Africa and Jordan in 2012–13, where his responsibilities included managing Libya policy.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October-November 2015

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