Last week, the U.S. emptied its embassy in Libya, and Americans have been called on to leave the country immediately. About a hundred embassy employees, including Marine guards, left in a convoy for a five-hour trip to Tunisia. The airport in Tripoli, where the embassy is located, was deemed too dangerous to use because of close-by fighting between rebel groups.
It must have been a very uncertain time for embassy officials and for Washington.
Five hours cross country on an open Libyan road must have been viewed with alarm by U.S. military and security forces. And that is why, according to news reports, F-16s accompanied the convoy, along with a Marine force in MV-22 Ospreys. And, add to that a layer of reconnaissance drones.
The result was there were no incidents.
The U.S. State Department considers the Libyan embassy to be open, but with electronic gear and documents either destroyed or removed, and the building empty of Americans, that is diplomatic wordplay. An empty embassy is not temporary. It is safe to say that Washington does not predict that it will be able to reoccupy and re-staff the embassy in Libya in the near future.
That the American-lead effort three years ago to unseat Moammar Gadhafi ended this way is an example of the political and military challenges that exist in north Africa and in the Middle East. Gadhafi is dead, but in his place, multiple rebel groups of differing composition surfaced to claim leadership in the country.
The air forces and navies of France, England and Italy had done the fighting, with the U.S. providing military materiel, communications and intelligence. Gadhafi’s forces were quickly cut off from resupply and unable to maneuver, and no American lives were lost. That military exercise was done as skillfully as can be.
But, then came the post-Gadhafi result: different Libyan leaders unwilling or unable to peaceable agree on how to organize the country into workable political and economic structures. With his ruthlessness, Gadhafi had been keeping his thumb on underlying rebel tendencies to a greater degree than the U.S. realized.
Eliminating a country’s leadership, no matter how cruel or threatening that leadership is to his people and to countries around him, may not end as we expect. We have learned that in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in Libya. The hesitancy that the U.S. has shown to doing the same thing in Syria, in the face of political criticism at home, has been wise.
Americans want action and quick results, often without knowing how deep cultural, religious and tribal differences lie. Making countries safe and democratic for their populations has not been easy to do and will not be in the future. Since 2001, we have become smarter about that.