By Ivan Eland
The attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four U.S. diplomats, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, is the latest example of tragic blowback from the U.S. government’s interventionist foreign policy in the Islamic world. That it happened on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an even more severe example of such blowback, is a cruel irony.
After 9/11, President George W. Bush told us that Islamist terrorists attack us for “our freedoms.” This contradicted the conclusion of his own Defense Science Board and other expert opinion—including that of the perpetrator of those attacks, Osama bin Laden—that al-Qaeda attacked us for our foreign policy of intervening indiscriminately in Muslim lands. The enduring lack of introspection on the part of the American government and people about the ill effects of those needless interventions leads to their continuation and consequent unpleasant blowback. Unfortunately, the killing of American personnel in Libya and the attacks on and violent protests at U.S. diplomatic facilities in 20 Islamic countries are examples of this payback.
At the time, critics of the overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi rightfully asked during the process exactly who made up the opposition the U.S. was supporting and what kind of government would replace him. They held out the possibility of post-Gadhafi instability, tribal warfare, and maybe even an Islamist takeover of the country. The attack on the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya is an example of that instability even in an Islamic country with relatively favorable feelings toward America. The new Libyan government was too weak to protect U.S. diplomats and actually blamed the United States for not evacuating its personnel sooner. Obviously, some Libyan factions aren’t very grateful for the help of Western air power in Gadhafi’s overthrow and continuing Western aid.
However, some would say that it was the Internet film insulting Islam that caused worldwide anti-American violence, not U.S. intervention. Yet the film was only the trigger, and the real underlying issue is U.S. and Western meddling in Islamic lands and culture. The U.S. superpower has been pursuing an interventionist policy in the Islamic world since World War II—ramping it up even further after 9/11 with the unnecessary invasion of Iraq—and is roundly hated for it, thus making it the target for such blowback attacks, even among peoples the U.S. tried to “help.”
In addition, the Western overthrow of Gadhafi—a long-time nemesis of the United States and West who had recently given up his nuclear program and had begun cooperating with the West, including holding Islamist detainees in his prisons for a U.S. government that had rendered them there—sent the wrong message to other countries thinking about getting or working on nuclear weapons. The United States showed no respect for non-nuclear Libya or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq but certainly has for nuclear North Korea.
Yet after the seemingly easy overthrow of Gadhafi—using only Western air power supporting an indigenous opposition force, with no need for boots on the ground—pressure is now building for a repeat in Syria. But the blowback attacks in Libya, Egypt, and other Islamic countries should be a cautionary note about what could come after the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. Like the heavily armed and rival tribal militias now roaming Libya, Syria has many heavily armed opposition factions, which continue to commit atrocities against civilians and, according to U.S. intelligence, have been infiltrated, and are sometimes commanded, by al-Qaeda. To illustrate, a doctor recently back from a humanitarian mission in Syria was shocked at the number of radical Islamist fighters in the opposition forces battling the Assad regime. Post-Gadhafi Islamist radicalism should have been no surprise in Libya, because al-Qaeda had always had a high participation rate from Benghazi and eastern Libya, the cradle of the anti-Gadhafi revolution. After the doctor’s report in Syria, such an Islamist upsurge should be no surprise to the U.S. government in any post-Assad Syria either. Furthermore, overt U.S. military intervention in Syria will do nothing for America’s already very low popularity in the Islamic world.
The attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya, Egypt, and worldwide should be a “canary in the coal mine” warning to stop U.S. meddling in the Islamic world. The U.S. has recently conducted military interventions in at least six Muslim nations: Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Even bigger birds flew in on 9/11 without causing any such introspection, however, so the prospect is bleak 11 years later for any badly needed U.S. soul-searching. Thus, unfortunately, at home and abroad, America will continue to needlessly have a big bull’s eye on its back.