The real lessons from Libya

How the Benghazi committee got so political
How the Benghazi committee got so political

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Story highlights

  • Manal Omar: Unrest in Libya underscores importance of smart power
  • Benghazi incident will have lasting effect on U.S. diplomatic engagement abroad, she says

Manal Omar is the acting vice president for the Center for the Middle East and Africa at the U.S. Institute for Peace and author of "Barefoot in Baghdad." The views expressed are the writer's own.

(CNN)There is one word that seems to consistently emerge when looking at Libya today: Regret. From Tripoli to Washington, many are left asking what went wrong and how Libya has been left with such a dangerous vacuum of power.

Unsurprisingly, these questions have grown louder as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepared to testify in front of a congressional committee investigating Benghazi. But even before Clinton began speaking Thursday, we had in just the past week already marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Moammar Gadhafi, as well the expiration of the Western-recognized parliament in Libya.
Indeed, whatever one thinks of the politics of the Benghazi hearings, it is clear that there are crucial lessons that should be learned from the U.S. engagement in Libya.
    Manal Omar
    Four lessons in particular stand out:
    First, whatever happens in Libya will have a long-lasting impact on the international community's ability to work toward conflict prevention.
    Libya saw the implementation of the 2005 United Nations agreement on the responsibility to protect through U.N. Security Council resolution 1970. Responsibility to protect was intended to provide foreign governments with a mandate to prevent atrocities when a state fails to protect its citizens, but critics suggest that it risked being more a case of war masked as a human rights agenda.
    The intervention in Libya has proved both sides correct.
    I was on the ground in Benghazi while Gadhafi still held power in Tripoli. Based on what I saw and heard, there is no doubt in my mind that if there had not been some form of intervention, there would have been mass atrocities and war crimes. On the other hand, the spiraling death toll of four years of civil war also appears to vindicate many of those who warned military intervention would simply lead to further destabilization and even more lives lost.
    So today, both narratives have a ring of truth. But it will be how Libya looks in the months and years to come that will really shape how the world views the concept of right to protect, and more broadly, the international community's role in conflict and atrocity prevention.
    Second, Libya calls into question the model of a light military footprint by intervening powers.
    The Iraq and Afghanistan experiences left the U.S. public with little appetite for another major war. Yet the aftermath of the coalition military effort has left many wondering whether a light military footprint is workable.
    Is this criticism fair? Perhaps not. After all, leading from behind in Libya and leading the charge in Iraq had not dissimilar consequences.
    Heavy or light, it seems, military action alone is not enough to ensure lasting success. As President Barack Obama has noted in the Libyan context, the lack of a "much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn't have any civic traditions" was regrettable.
    The reality is that Libya underscores the importance of soft and even smart power, which former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defines as the "use of the soft power of diplomacy, with the hard power of the threat of the use of force, and sanctions." And, as the world continues to face humanitarian crises, from Syria to the Central African Republic to Myanmar, better understanding of the application of smart power will clearly be crucial if the United States is to respond effectively to conflict globally.
    Third, the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi will have a long-lasting effect on American diplomatic engagement abroad, especially on how security is viewed.
    On this issue, the Benghazi attack leaves both sides of the aisle vulnerable. After all, the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. nationals occurred on Hillary Clinton's watch. But it was also the Republican leadership that sought cuts for funds for embassy security.
    Unfortunately, the understandable reaction to the tragedy will significantly degrade the U.S. success in the diplomatic arena. From Beirut to Kabul to Baghdad, our embassies are now built as fortresses with minimal movement by foreign services officers outside embassy compounds. For locals and U.S. citizens visiting a U.S. embassy compound, there are endless security procedures, which are frequently described as a humiliating experience. All this defeats the very purpose of an embassy, which is to engage with the host community.
    Finally, Libya now has a power vacuum, with no legitimate government.
    This has profound implications for U.S. national security, especially at a time when so much of our foreign centers around the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
    A recent USIP report concluded that Libya's security landscape continues to be fragmented, public confidence has decreased and loyalty is divided among different religious and political groups, leaving vast space for arms and drugs smuggling, human trafficking, the emergence of extremist militias and even an ISIS presence inside the country. Images such as a video purportedly showing Egyptian Coptic Christians being beheaded on a Libyan beach is etched in the minds of minorities across the region.
    Sadly, Libya has been one of the primary victims of the corrupted people power movement of the Arab Spring and the unrealistic expectations -- domestic and international alike. Too many lost sight of the fact that the transition from a brutal authoritarian regime to an inclusive government that responds to its citizens is a lengthy and long process.
    Four years on, and Libya is still only at the beginning of this journey. If the United States really wants to learn lessons from Libya, then it must realize that it is in the interests of both the U.S. and international community to provide as much diplomatic, technical and other support as they can to ensure the country's success.