In the midst of the furor about Donald Trump’s various remarks last week, you may have missed the fact that the United States launched air strikes against Libya starting on August 1. (One of the most unfortunate features of our presidential election cycle is the staggering amount of time and attention that it steals from governing, both in terms of actual policy making and media coverage of the governing that actually does take place in the midst of this electoral circus.) The air strikes will be part of a “sustained operation” to help forces loyal to the (current) Libyan government make a decisive advance on the coastal city of Sirte, which has been the site of fighting between IS and government forces for several weeks.
The United States has launched air strikes against Libya a few times since the 2011 intervention that eliminated Qaddafi and his regime. This is the first time, however, that the strikes are being touted as part of a “sustained operation” there. According to public reports, American special operations forces have been advising fighters on the ground in Libya since December. It is unclear whether they are still there and if so how many, but U.S. ground forces are not openly participating in the battle for Sirte. This also constitutes the first time that the United States has openly chosen to back a side (the Government of National Accord or GNA) in what is effectively a Libyan civil war. There are hundreds of rival militias currently fighting for control of Libya and for the opportunity to be the western-backed force that will defeat IS. Even if a temporary attack on IS in Sirte succeeds (a big “if”), it is not clear how this strategy will help to unify the rest of the country. If this operation succeeds, will the United States then help the GNA to wipe out the various factions that do not recognize its authority?
I have written about U.S. policy in Libya many times, both in my book and on this site. I wish I were surprised that the United States has chosen to go down this path again, given the fact that we created the chaos that we are now trying to contain. IS was able find refuge in Libya because the 2011 NATO intervention eliminated the government and showered munitions on the population without any plan for the aftermath. Obama has recently claimed that this failure to plan for the aftermath in Libya was the “worst mistake” of his presidency. Despite this admission, Obama continues to conduct his foreign policy in a way that makes little strategic sense: he has consistently stated that he wants the United States to withdraw from the Middle East, but he has also launched limited strikes against various targets that can at best temporarily quash one problem while generating three more, with 2011 Libya as the classic example.
This unwillingness to plan for a longer occupation is actually part of the plan, because Obama explicitly wants to avoid committing American ground troops to another endless occupation in the Middle East. And therein lies the fundamental flaw with the so-called “Obama Doctrine”: using force in this relatively cheap, limited manner will not generate stable political outcomes. It can (and most likely will) make the situation worse in ways we cannot foresee right now, but it will not make things better over the long run and it will commit American forces to another conflict at a time when we are incapable of terminating any of our rapidly multiplying international commitments.
Someone who is notably not admitting that the Libya intervention was a colossal mistake is the American perhaps most responsible for orchestrating it: Hillary Clinton. Will the next President have a more sensible strategy for American involvement in the Middle East in general and Libya in particular? I am sorry to say that all the evidence currently points to “no.”
 I can’t say I disagree, although I would also rank the fruitless troop surge in Afghanistan among the worst of his major policy decisions, and the combination of the dozens of bad decisions embodied in the drone campaign should also rank alongside these major errors.