Reap What You Sow: Libya's Harsh Lessons

A vehicle (R) and the surround buildings burn after they were set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi late o
A vehicle (R) and the surround buildings burn after they were set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi late on September 11, 2012. An armed mob protesting over a film they said offended Islam, attacked the US consulate in Benghazi and set fire to the building, killing one American, witnesses and officials said. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

One week following the saddening murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Bengazi, Libya, the mystery of precisely what happened has not lifted. The claim of UN envoy Susan Rice that the violence was spontaneous in reaction to the American right-wing film about the prophet Mohammed is not convincing. But we need to look beyond the incident itself to what troubles Libya and some other Arab countries in transition, as nearly all agree it's a parlous moment.

This fragility has not constrained the usual suspects. Not only did Mitt Romney, Fox News, and the right-wing blogosphere try to disparage President Obama's handling of the fracas in Cairo and other cities, but Israel's foreign ministry piled on, saying the U.S. wasn't taking Arab radicalization seriously.

Even in the politically charged derision, there is food for thought. The Obama administration's reaction to the tumult of Arab spring has been measured and "managerial" rather than either a full embrace or a cold shoulder. It reflects Obama's own personality, it seems -- cautious, wait-and-see, let's get the facts. That is not a bad thing, really, in such revolutionary circumstances.

Caution is called for precisely because the inner tensions existing in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and other Arab countries are those that beset Libya. They will be the same kinds of tensions that will trouble Syria after Bashar al-Assad leaves Damascus for his retirement villa in Iran. As many commentators have said, the long-suppressed populations of those countries are angered by dilapidated economies and a fractious and repressive social and political environment. Enemies must be found, and the United States easily fits that bill.

But there's more than just boiling-over frustration and wanna-be Al Qaeda operatives stoking the fires. There is a narrative in Arab countries -- most Muslim countries -- that regards U.S. actions in the region as being mainly military and mainly harmful to ordinary Arabs and other Muslims. Yes, the United States has supported human-rights NGOs and health care practice and other development projects in many of these countries, but the big ticket items are military aid to Egypt and Israel. U.S. diplomatic muscle is flexed mainly on behalf of Israel. And, most important, are the million dead Afghans and Iraqis that died as a consequence of U.S.-instigated wars, as well as many millions more displaced or impoverished.

That the United States has approached the complexities of the region with blunt instruments is partially what the Arab street is reacting to. Blunt indifference was also on display in Romney's statements about the Palestinians -- that they don't want peace and do want the destruction of Israel -- which will be interpreted as what American elites really think, whatever their party. And if Israel foolishly attacks Iran, the turmoil in Arab streets today will look like a picnic by comparison to the reverberations throughout the Muslim world in that event. As Netanyahu incessantly says, "We are you [the U.S.], and you are us" -- and that's how many in the region see it, to our peril.

Just one indicator of that: In a recent survey, 63 percent of those living in the Middle East and North Africa said that the United States was not to be trusted to act responsibly in the world.

In Libya, the danger apparent in the murders of our diplomats is not the work of a marginal group of bad actors. Ansar al-Sharia, the fundamentalist militants who are the main suspects, is a jihadist group that may have as many as 5,000 members. Its leader told BBC this week, "Make no mistake, there is a massive American onslaught on Muslim countries. The crusaders want to occupy our countries and act as our guardians. They do not respect our sovereignty." Their actions have been linked to Al Qaeda, and may be the equivalent of a mafia hit in revenge for the assassination by a U.S. drone attack of an AQ leader, a Libyan, in June in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While the intrigue of the killings links the tragedy to the war in Afghanistan, the broader picture in Libya is not reassuring. "Because the country lacks a fully functioning state, effective army or police, local actors -- notables, civilian and military councils, revolutionary brigades -- have stepped in to provide safety, mediate disputes and impose ceasefires," begins a detailed report this week from the International Crisis Group. "Central authorities have acted chiefly as bystanders, in effect subcontracting security to largely autonomous armed groups."

These militias are to some degree based on kinship, tribe, and the like, and those who were part of the effort to overthrow Qaddafi have seized the upper hand in many towns and cities. Revenge is exacted with varying degrees of violence. As in Iraq, the fragmentation of security is itself a source of insecurity. Violence begets violence. The months of civil war that brought down Qaddafi were bloody and traumatic, and while a different order or two of magnitude from Iraq's colossal carnage, some of the same dynamics are at work. Regime change that is imposed by outside powers almost always results in civil war, as the political scientist Alexander Downes argued in a Boston Review forum last year (for which I was a respondent), and one of the key reasons for that is the violence that is visited upon the country. Without a strong central state that can guarantee post-war order (and justice), the bad guys with guns will impose disorder to gain traction in the new political environment.

The news is not all bad from Libya. Elections held during the summer are bringing to power a fairly moderate legislature and government. Women, who feel coercive pressure from fundamentalists in the countryside, nonetheless won 16 percent of parliamentary seats. And of course Libya has oil, a mixed blessing, but compared with Egypt's lack of resources, a foothold for development and peace.

Republicans will persist in portraying the Libyan murders and turmoil elsewhere in Muslim countries as a consequence of U.S. "weakness" under Obama, and will persist, parrot-like, with their tiresome (and false) line about his apologies for American values. How this will wash in the election is anyone's guess. But the reality on the ground in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen is immensely more complex, and yields no easy solutions. It does argue for extreme caution with respect to Syria, however, where the bloody mix of sectarian strife and high civilian casualties will engender lasting bitterness no matter the outcome. The less the U.S. is involved militarily in this region, the better for us in the long run.

Follow John Tirman on Twitter: @JohnTirman