As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) grows its influence on the ground in Libya, the Pentagon says it's considering "military options" to prevent the would-be caliphate's growth in a third oil-rich nation in the Middle East/North Africa.
President Obama and former Secretary of State and current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton both say they understand how the prosecution of the Iraq War contributed to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—the war created a power vacuum within which extremist forces like Al-Qaeda were able to organize and evolve, and from which ISIS eventually emerged.
They say they understand the connection, but perhaps they only understand the political expediency of being able to blame ISIS on George W. Bush, a member of the other party. Certainly, neither has yet appeared to articulate an understanding of how the 2011 U.S.-led intervention in Libya, which led to the toppling of the Qaddafi regime, created a power vacuum within which extremist forces like Al-Qaeda were able to organize, and which ISIS eventually took advantage of to secure its own stronghold outside its Iraq-Syria mainland.
As Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), the only Republican presidential candidate who appears to understand how George W. Bush's policies contributed to the rise of ISIS, rightly points out that understanding the negative consequences of interventionist foreign policy is critical to formulating foreign policy that can avoid those consequences.
That's about to get even more important. Obama, Clinton, and the Democratic foreign policy establishment can't pin the blame on the ISIS presence in Libya on George W. Bush. In fact, under the Bush administration, U.S.-Libya relations even began to normalize somewhat after Col. Qaddafi unilaterally offered to give up his chemical and nuclear weapons research. But when the U.S. insisted it had an international "responsibility to protect" the people of Libya from the threat of massacre by their government, President Obama—who had made nuclear disarmament one of his early foreign policy goals—did not even mention how U.S. military action against Libya less than a decade after it agreed to disarmament might discourage other states from giving up their potential nuclear arsenals.
In the nearly five years since the U.S.-led intervention, Libya has spiraled into chaos. There are currently two competing governments, plus ISIS' would-be state in Sirte. Weapons and fighters flooded out of Libya after the intervention, destabilizing countries from Nigeria to Syria. On September 11, 2012, militants attacked the U.S. complex in Benghazi, killing the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. It's unclear what the U.S. was doing in Libya then, what motivated the attackers or, for that matter, what the U.S. is doing in Libya now.
And that the Pentagon is now considering military options against ISIS doesn't change any of that. Using military force is not a comprehensive strategy. Even that, apparently, was not a lesson learned from Iraq. Incidentally, in an interview on the BBC tonight, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted that the U.S.'s "Assad must go" strategy in Syria was constricting U.S. options on ISIS, an organization Hagel said the U.S. had "underestimated." So U.S. foreign policy makers still haven't grasped how toppling regimes without considering the consequences can aggravate instability.
Not long ago, in his final State of the Union, President Obama mocked Sen. Ted Cruz, another Republican presidential candidate, for suggesting he wanted to carpet bomb ISIS. But the U.S. is dropping so many bombs on ISIS its running out of ordnance. And now it's pondering a new strategy for ISIS in Libya, of dropping even more bombs, and supporting even more "moderate rebels." The difference in flavor on rhetoric doesn't matter when the policies are largely simplistic in the same way, especially to the people who end up having bombs dropped on them.
Related: ISIS is Expanding. Should U.S. Military Bases Abroad Expand Too?