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In 'The Burning Shores,' Libya Blossoms — Briefly — Before Unraveling

Demonstrators raise Libyan flags at a national unity demonstration in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square in 2012.
Courtesy of Frederic Wehrey
Demonstrators raise Libyan flags at a national unity demonstration in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square in 2012.

In April 2016, former President Barack Obama singled out the "worst mistake" of his presidency: his administration's lack of planning for the aftermath of the 2011 military intervention in Libya.

When Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was toppled, author Frederic Wehrey says, the country was initially seized by euphoria.

"You had the blossoming of civil society; people were free to speak their own minds, they were able to organize themselves politically," says Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "And so it was quite easy to get swept up in that triumphal moment."

He witnessed the moment firsthand — and then watched as it fell apart. Tribes and militias turned on each other, and Libya descended into civil war.

Wehrey documents the country's unraveling in The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya.

Interview Highlights

On the United States' plans to help Libya

They had the plans, but the problem was the will to execute them. So this was an administration — the Obama administration — [that] undertook this intervention with the explicit goal of not being responsible for what followed it, of really abdicating responsibility for the post-conflict recovery and reconstruction to the Libyans themselves, but also to the United Nations and the Europeans.

And for various reasons, those actors proved incapable or unwilling to handle the reconstruction. The U.N. had its own set of problems: bureaucratic, structural. The Libyans were divided about how much assistance they wanted — they did not want to repeat an Iraq-style occupation, but at the same time, they did want some assistance. So it was this real quandary about, how do you assist a country that really had no experience in governance?

On the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens

The great tragedy of this was that Ambassador Stevens was so committed to outreach to the Libyan people and to a particular practice of diplomacy that really meant getting out on the street and meeting people from all walks of life. And the great tragedy of that attack was that it constrained that approach, it curtailed it. There was a tremendous retreat, or retrenchment, of America's diplomatic presence.

And part of that was understandable for the need to safeguard lives, but part of it unfortunately was the partisanship — that this became so politicized back in Washington, D.C. that it affected America's ability to engage on the ground in Libya....

A Libyan soldier peers across the frontline in Sirte during battle against the Islamic State in 2016.
/ Courtesy of Frederic Wehrey
Courtesy of Frederic Wehrey
A Libyan soldier peers across the frontline in Sirte during battle against the Islamic State in 2016.

There was no government in Benghazi to protect them, there was no army or police — they were at the whim of these militias. Many Libyans actually did try to help the Americans that night, and that story I do not think has been told fully, and I try to tell it in my book — that Libyans actually did try to come to the rescue of Chris. There were certain militias that helped the Americans evacuate.

On civil war and ISIS in Libya

You had ... this sort of splintering of the country into two camps, into open civil war, in the summer of 2014. That was exacerbated by regional states that were playing a very cynical game of arming and funding the different factions — Egypt, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Qatar and Turkey. And then in the middle of this vacuum that was opened up, you had ISIS come. And it was an obvious breeding ground for ISIS: a fractured state that already had a tradition of radicalism, of jihadism. You had Libyans that went to Syria to fight that were coming back — and they were really the carriers of the "ISIS virus," so to speak. And so quickly ISIS spread across the country.

On the current state of Libya

There are encouraging signs of normalcy in Tripoli: markets are open, there are sports clubs, you know, universities are open.

But there is deep trauma. I mean, there's huge problems with medical care. You have Libyans actually joining those migrant flows across the Mediterranean, they're so desperate to leave. A lot of Libyans have left. You have rampant lawlessness.

So on the surface when you go there, it seems OK, but there is a lot of kidnapping, there's a lot of criminality, and there are militia fights that can break out at any time in the capital over turf for various reasons. So things can go bad very, very quickly. So the calm you encounter on first sight is often very deceptive.

Noah Caldwell and Emily Kopp produced and edited this story for broadcast. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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