The Unwinding

The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya BY Frederic Wehrey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 352 pages. $28

Americans and Libya go way back. The opening lines of the “Marines’ Hymn” commemorate the First Barbary War (1801–05), one of the young republic’s earliest forays into international military intervention. During the Reagan era, Libya and its dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, became synonymous with terrorism for many Americans, after the Libyan-sponsored bombing of a West Berlin nightclub frequented by US soldiers. This mistrust was famously dramatized in Back to the Future, in which the panicked cry “The Libyans!” was intended to be both bloodcurdling and somewhat absurd. And during the last presidential election, the word Benghazi summarized the Republicans’ attacks on Hillary Clinton almost as evocatively as the mention of her emails. Yet few Americans—whether in 1805, 1985, or 2016—have known much of anything about Libya and its politics.

Frederic Wehrey’s The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya is a welcome arrival at a time when, again, America must reckon with the North African nation. Wehrey recounts the 2011 Libyan revolution and its chaotic aftermath from the perspective of a well-informed outsider with extensive experience in the country. Beginning in 2009, during Gaddafi’s temporary rapprochement with the West, Wehrey served as a military reservist at the US embassy in Libya. He returned to the country in 2012 as a scholar specializing in Arab politics. The Burning Shores combines descriptions of those trips with cultural and political analysis, forming an engaging blend of memoir, investigation, history, and reportage. Wehrey provides one of the best accounts of contemporary Libya available, based on his deep knowledge of the Arab political scene and meetings with most of the key Libyan players.

He draws rich portraits of civil-society activist Salwa Bugaighis, who was murdered, allegedly by Islamist extremists, in Benghazi in 2014; the supposedly reformed jihadist Abdel Hakim Belhadj; and key political and militia leaders, including Libya’s most significant current warlord, Khalifa Haftar. Haftar bluntly told the author that “there are three options” for radical Islamists in the parts of Libya under his watch: “prison, under the ground or out of the country.” Wehrey describes the impact of Haftar’s control of Benghazi, which, in April 2017, once again “hummed with signs of normalcy.” Traffic cops were back. “Factories and farms were creaking to life, while young entrepreneurs tried their hand at tech start-ups. The university was reopening.” Professional soccer had resumed. “Yet beneath this image of recovery,” Wehrey notes, “Benghazi had another, darker side.” He describes the brutality of Haftar’s tactics in battling the Islamists, the abuse and killing of prisoners, the promotion of pro-Haftar religious conservatives, and his “militarization of governance.” Wehrey adds, “Tripoli and the west of Libya aren’t much better.” Whatever his flaws, it’s unlikely that life under Haftar is worse for most Libyans than it would be under the Islamists, though.

It is perhaps inevitable that the centerpiece of Wehrey’s narrative is the attack on the de facto US embassy in Libya, in Benghazi, on September 11, 2012, when ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered by a terrorist gang. To close—and even casual—observers of Washington politics, this story is old news, endlessly rehashed by Republicans in an attempt to prove that Hillary Clinton behaved negligently or even criminally that day. As Wehrey notes, Republicans in Congress spent “hundreds of hours, thousands of pages, and millions of dollars investigating the Benghazi attack” in eight investigations over four years, and “none would add much beyond what the State Department’s own internal review had concluded.” Wehrey recognizes that not enough was done to protect the embassy, but maintains that the failing was due to a combination of hubris, naïveté, and bureaucratic sclerosis, not administrative malpractice—let alone wrongdoing. Yet “Benghazi!” remains a powerful one-word rallying cry for the American Right. Wehrey gives a definitive account of the attack, and, even more important, goes beyond political point-scoring to provide a big-picture view of how it came about and what happened in its aftermath.

In doing so, Wehrey offers an engaging narrative of Libya’s recent history and American engagement in the region. He includes a scrupulous telling of the ill-fated intervention by Washington and its European and Arab allies in the Libyan uprising. This action is now widely regarded as a failure, if not a disaster. But, as Wehrey explains, it began as a somewhat idealistic mission, one in which America’s values and foreign policy interests seemed to be aligned. The Obama administration wanted to act on intelligence that Gaddafi was planning a massacre in Benghazi. What began as a “responsibility to protect” mission became a campaign of regime change because, Wehrey writes, “the logic of civilian protection eventually demanded that the regime had to go.” Wehrey’s reporting reinforces the idea that the Libya mission was partially an experiment. For Obama and his staff, the invasion of Iraq and the occupation that followed was the ultimate foreign policy blunder. Yet they saw themselves as engaged internationalists. The Libya campaign was a way to test what could be accomplished with a limited intervention. The goal was to avoid everything the US had done wrong in Iraq: There were virtually no ground troops in Libya, and the Americans worked in close cooperation with allies. This was all, of course, in the name of human rights. On these limited terms, the mission was accomplished: There was no massacre in Benghazi, and the regime eventually fell.

Libya, 2012. Courtney Radsch/Flickr.

But almost no one looks back on the intervention as a success. As Wehrey illustrates in excruciating detail, the revolution quickly devolved into battles over oil, ideology, and power. Describing the leverage that militias gained over post-Gaddafi political leaders, Wehrey notes: “Like the young magician in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the Libyan government was now beholden to an apparition of its own conjuring. Its repeated efforts to disarm and demobilize militias failed.” Because the US-backed coalition didn’t seek close cooperation with any of these competing groups, America didn’t gain any influence in the region. And there were calamitous unintended consequences: isis was able to establish its largest foothold in North Africa in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, until it was dislodged by a joint operation between US airpower and less extreme—but hardly pro-American—Islamist groups.

The Libyan misadventure contributed to Washington’s aversion to Middle East conflict, with far-reaching aftereffects. Most notably, Obama was likely influenced by the sense of failure in Libya when he decided not to get drawn into the Syrian civil war, even when the “red line” warning against chemical-weapons use was flagrantly and repeatedly crossed. Wehrey asks if this lack of action was “another case of overlearning” by the cautious Obama administration. If the Iraq War was, in every way, too much, Obama’s “leading from behind” (as one adviser put it) in Libya proved to be too little—even success felt like a loss.

Wehrey is less convincing when he addresses regional factors. Early in the book, he writes that Qatar supported Islamist groups in Libya “not because it was committed to a covert Islamist project but rather because it saw them as the most capable fighters.” He claims that Qatar and Turkey had “self-interested motives” in Libya “served by promoting the inclusion of Islamists,” but he never explains what those motives are. Each country has its own reasons for consistently backing the Islamists: Turkey embraces their ideology, and Qatar has bet on their future success throughout the region. To his credit, Wehrey astutely points out the connection between events in Libya and the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain. He correctly notes that “the first half of 2017 saw an uptick in Egyptian and Emirati military activity in Libya,” adding: “Reinforcing these efforts was the fierce, Saudi-led blockade of Qatar.” He doesn’t draw the further connection between Libya, Qatar, and a campaign to pressure Hamas in Gaza last summer, but all these events reflect a profound, multi-faceted ideological struggle in much of the Arab world regarding the role of Islamist groups. These are not the sectarian conflicts that are often assumed to dominate the Middle East today.

The Burning Shores is replete with telling details from Wehrey’s firsthand experience. He offers an evocative view of life in different parts of Libya during the social shifts that have buffeted the country in recent years. Readers get a keen sense of the competing political and militia leaders guiding Libya’s chaotic transformation, with few illusions about their motivations and a clear-eyed sense of what, rhetoric aside, is really informing their complex maneuvering. Especially revealing is a comment from a despairing Libyan intelligence officer, who told the author: “We overthrew Qadhafi and now we don’t know what to do.” Wehrey calls that “the clearest explanation yet I’d heard for Libya’s troubles.” The same can easily be said about his own book.


Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW).