Libya is in chaos. Its capital, Tripoli, and second largest city, Benghazi, have been turned into battlegrounds for rival militias. Meanwhile, the government, fresh off the back of yet more elections in June, is as impotent as it has ever been. There is no central source of authority, and no prospect of order, in this fragmenting territory. Libyans with the means to do so are fleeing the country. Many are not so fortunate.
And what of the Western states so implicated in this rulerless, lawless mess? What are Britain, France and the US doing? After all, it was thanks to their aerial intervention three years ago that Libya found itself without the brutalising force of Colonel Gaddafi, which had maintained order for so long. Surely the likes of UK prime minister David Cameron or US president Barack Obama are taking some responsibility for the nightmare now unfolding in Libya? Well, no, they’re not; they’re steadfastly ignoring it. The British and American military have been back to Libya, but that was just to aid the exodus of British and American citizens. Western leaders have almost completely withdrawn from Libya - diplomatically, militarily and emotionally. As far as they’re concerned, it is no longer their problem. ‘The outside world has thrown in the towel on Libya’, notes one reporter.
But of course it is their problem. Back in 2011, Cameron, Obama and then French President Nikolas Sarkozy were all too keen to be seen as responsible for Gaddafi’s collapse. It was their moment in the sun, their chance to bask in the glory of a tyrant’s overthrow. After bombing Gaddafi’s forces into submission in March 2011, Obama was all too keen to trumpet America’s role. ‘We have intervened to stop a massacre’, he announced to the American nation, ‘and we will work with our allies and partners to maintain the safety of civilians’.
If Obama enjoyed the reflected glory of Gaddafi’s defeat, Cameron and Sarkozy revelled in it. In a joint trip to Tripoli in September 2011, a grinning, pink-faced Cameron told the assembled press ranks ‘what an honour it is to be here in Tripoli with you to see how the Libyan people are taking their country back and taking it forward to a new era’. It’s a wonder Cameron’s pride didn’t burst its banks. ‘I am hugely impressed by what I have seen’, he continued, ‘and I am very proud to be standing here’.
But this was the first flush of post-Gaddafi Libya. This was Cameron’s, Sarkozy’s and Obama’s chance to play up a success, to rake in the domestic plaudits for an ethical, foreign-policy intervention well done. This was their George W Bush moment, their chance to stand up and declare ‘mission accomplished’.