WASHINGTON, April 24, 2015 – Recently about 850 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa lost their lives in the sea between Libya, where anarchy reigns, and Italy. It is the worst single death toll among those being smuggled across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.
More than 70,000 migrants are being sheltered in Italian reception centers. Italy has saved about 200,000 migrants at sea since the start of 2014. According to the United Nations refugee agency, 219,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean last year, and at least 3,500 died trying.
The vast majority of smugglers’ boats leave from Libya, no matter the place of origin of the asylum-seekers. Islamist militants and human traffickers have gathered strength in Libya since the ouster of long-time dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.
On his visit to Washington in mid-April, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi made it clear that the fault lies with the foreign powers, including the United States, that had helped overthrow Gaddafi.
He said, “If you move to remove a dictator – you must think about, step by step, what institutional structures will remain.”
In early 2011, as Libya was unravelling, in part because of intervention by France and Qatar, the U.S. lobbied the U.N. Security Council to support a NATO operation to protect the city of Benghazi. On March 28, 2011, President Obama, at the National Defense University, defended the U.S. role in the coalition of providing air cover for rebels. Soon, the bombing of Gaddafi’s forces by NATO fighter planes helped turn the tide. Six months later Gaddafi was killed in Sirte.
Just as the U.S. overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq without any realistic plan about what the future of the country would look like, so the victory over Gaddafi in Libya was completely unplanned, and the U.S. had no policy in place to insure stability in the country.
Fighting continues in Libya, with various factions controlling different parts of the country. Oil and natural gas production has dried up because of the fighting. uman Rights Watch has reported about 400,000 people internally displaced and, in the first nine months of 2014, the assassination of 250, including judges, journalists, activists and imams.
After Gaddafi’s fall, President Obama openly proclaimed that there would be challenges for a post-Gaddafi Libya, but they were not ones the U.S. would solve. Bruce Jones, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, says, “If you’re going to overthrow Gaddafi, a reasonable policy goal, you have to plan and prepare for the transition, and that would have required an international stabilization force.”
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That force could have disarmed the militias and cleared space for domestic institutions, boosted by oil revenue, to take root. But, Jones notes, President Obama wasn’t interested, and neither were the other countries that had joined together to eliminate Gaddafi. Now, many Libyans are voting with their feet, producing the current refugee crisis.
The unintended consequences of planned military interventions in the Middle East are all around us. The growth of al Qaeda and ISIS show us how little understanding those who took us to war in Iraq really had. And now those who promoted the war with Iraq are opposing any negotiated agreement with Iran and, instead, are again urging war.
Writing in the New York Times, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., has this advice: “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran…Force is the only option.”
Writing in the Washington Post, Joshua Muravchik, a strong proponent of the war in Iraq now at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, asks the question, “Is our only option war?” and responds, “Yes.”
The contributions of large sums of money by advocates of war with Iran, such as Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, are pushing some Republicans to support a military assault. Few remember that Adelson once lamented that while he served in the U.S. Army, he wished it had been the Israeli army instead. He has publicly called for bombing Iran.
Consider the case of Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who was virtually unknown until he prepared a letter signed by 47 Republicans to leaders in Iran warning against an agreement. The Emergency Committee for Israel, led by William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, who was a leading advocate of the war in Iraq, spent $960,000 to support Cotton in his Senate race in Arkansas.
Kristol has close ties with Israel’s far right, as does hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, who contributed $250,000 to Arkansas Horizon, an independent expenditure group. Seth Klarman, a Boston-based supporter of Israel’s far right, contributed $100,000 through his investment firm. The political action committee headed by John Bolton spent $825,000 to support Cotton.
Sen. Cotton says he personally composed the letter to Iran’s leaders. This seems less than likely. It is highly unusual for a freshman senator to take a bold step like the Iran letter and then persuade dozens of colleagues to endorse it. William Kristol admits that he had a conversation with Cotton about the letter, There continues to be much speculation about who really wrote it. One thing seems clear: the calls for war with Iran seem to have been bought and paid for.
Many in Israel are critical of calls for war with Iran by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his American supporters, such as Adelson and Kristol. They argue that the focus on Iran is simply a means to avoid dealing with the question of the continued occupation of the West Bank.
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Editorially, the newspaper Ha’aretz on March 3 declared:
“Netanyahu and other Israeli candidates are ignoring the real existential threat to Israel…the unending occupation of the territories. Israel’s insistence on ruling over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank who lack civil rights, expanding the settlements and keeping residents of the Gaza Strip under siege is the danger threatening the future.”
Wars have unintended consequences, as the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean makes abundantly clear.
We removed Saddam Hussein, with no plan for what would come next.
We removed Moammar Gaddafi, with no concern or plan for the future.
And now we hear loud and well-financed voices once again urging us to war, this time with a country three times the size of Iraq. Let us hope that this time we will look ahead, although those in Washington in charge of our foreign policy give us little reason to be optimistic.
The one thing we learn from history, it seems, is that we learn nothing from history.