More than two years after the United States joined France, Britain, Qatar, and others in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, the morality, political wisdom, and international legality of helping rebel forces topple Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi is still hotly debated.
Was it a success as it aided the Libyan people's fight for freedom and led to successful elections, bringing the Arab Spring's only non-Islamist successor government to power? Or a failure as the post-Qadhafi central government is so weak and security so patchy that the British Ambassador's motorcade was bombed and the US Ambassador was assassinated by Islamist militants even though the authorities and the vast majority of the Libyan people hold favorable attitudes toward Britain and America?
Even the highest political officials in the land cannot seem to decide if the United States adopted the right policy in engaging in Libya. In fact, since the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, the subject of America's role in Libya has become irrevocably tainted by partisanship. [End Page 319]
In her last public act as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton appeared before Congress on January 23, 2013. She presented vague admissions concerning the State Department's and the intelligence community's failings that led to the death of Ambassador Stevens. Freshman senator from Kentucky Rand Paul claimed that Clinton should have been fired for the security lapses, while Senator John McCain bravely redirected the discussion away from security and toward the larger issues of the US-Libya relationship. He bucked the consensus in Congress which holds that the US should invest more in security and less in "nation-building" in societies in transition. McCain hit the nail on the head as he pointed out that Ambassador Stevens was inherently in danger in travelling to Benghazi, not because Americans are hated in Libya, but rather because the US did not provide enough capacity building assistance to the Libyan authorities to help them construct central security mechanisms. He rightly acknowledged that American failings in Libya have been from engaging too little, not too much.
Predictably, McCain's fellow Republicans did not follow him into a high-minded policy debate, rather they descended into a partisan blame game attempting to besmirch Obama's entire approach to Libya — ignoring that it was merely a continuation of the Bush-era policy of engagement, deterrence, and détente.
Sparked by the urgency and politicization of the debate surrounding the "West's Libya policy," certain popular books have attempted to weigh in. A common theme has been to blame Western nations and multinational corporations for their role in the international "rehabilitation" of Qadhafi from 2003-2010. Lampooning Tony Blair for his "deal in the desert" has become common place in almost all British broadsheets. The standard argument holds the West as partially culpable for Qadhafi's sins because it sold him sophisticated weapons and served him his Islamist enemies on a silver platter rather than sticking to Ronald Reagan's unnuanced aim of ousting "the mad dog of the Middle East." This case is made most coherently in Ethan Chorin's, Exit Gaddafi: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution.
Chorin presents a detailed, readable, and informed blow-by-blow account of the events of 2011. He elegantly frames the narrative with morsels of Libyan fiction which confer an epic, fable-like quality to the events of the revolution. Furthermore, Chorin expertly peppers the text with an insider's anecdotes about Libya's key personalities. Both literary devises give the reader a taste of Libyan culture and an appreciation for developments on the ground. He utilizes interviews with high ranking officials to dissect both how the Qadhafi regime attempted to combat the uprisings and how the rebel movement evolved over time. All of the above makes Exit Gaddafi a pleasure to read and a valuable contribution to the emerging scholarship.