It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time _ 16 months ago to be exact _ when Congress showed very little interest in Libya.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted along party lines, 232-186, to convene a select committee to investigate the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens. Republicans said creation of the panel was necessary for Congress to carry out its oversight role into how the attack happened and whether the Obama administration purposely obscured facts afterward.
But the new Benghazi probe is unlikely to tackle another topic that some argue is just as critical to understanding what went wrong in Libya _ Congress’ own failure to call attention to the deteriorating security situation in that country in the months after the NATO-assisted toppling of its longtime leader, Moammar Gadhafi.
Even though the U.S. military's role was critical to the NATO bombing campaign that contributed to Gadhafi’s fall and death, neither the House nor the Senate ever held a hearing about Libya and what the NATO-led effort had left behind. After four decades of living under Gadhafi, all with no real security force or order, Libya struggled to maintain security, its economy failed to recover and the weak government in Tripoli was powerless to fend off extremists who took control of the restive country.
Republicans were front and center in the failure to explore what was happening in Libya. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a harsh critic of the Obama administration over its handling of the Benghazi attacks, met with Stevens during a July 2012 visit to Libya, just two months before Stevens’ death. A month earlier, unknown attackers in Benghazi had attempted to assassinate the British ambassador to Libya.
Yet McCain made no mention publicly of the deteriorating security situation _ the British had closed their consulate in Benghazi in response to the attack _ and instead issued a news release that effusively praised the progress Libya was making toward democracy.
Asked this week about his visit with Stevens, McCain said that the ambassador had discussed the security situation with him. Pressed for details, McCain said he could not remember the specifics of the conversation. Asked whether he brought any security concerns to the attention of his fellow members of Congress or officials at the State Department when he returned from Libya, McCain said he could not recall. A review of Senate records found nothing to indicate that he had.
McCain acknowledged he didn’t probe. “I didn’t ask him questions,” he said. “It was part of the conversation. He said he relayed that information back to the State Department.”
McCain is not alone. Prior to the Benghazi attack, Congress showed little interest in developments in Libya after the collapse of the Gadhafi government, even though the civil war there was fueled in no small part by the Obama administration's decision to back NATO’s air campaign. The ramifications of that effort have had a far greater effect than many imagined when bombing began in Libya in March 2011.
Russia, which had joined the United States in supporting a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians in Libya, later accused the West of exceeding the authority the U.N. had granted it when it helped topple Gadhafi. Moscow now cites the experience as one reason it has refused to be more cooperative on halting the violence in Syria.
The looting of the Gadhafi government’s weapons stores is believed by many to have fueled the rise of al Qaida in northern Africa, where al Qaida-inspired terrorists nearly seized the country of Mali before French forces drove them back into the desert early last year. Libyan weapons are said to have helped the growth of al Qaida-linked groups in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Benghazi’s airport now routinely receives passengers that officials there believe are bound for terrorist training camps set up in the countryside of eastern Libya.
Yet none of those developments have been the subject of congressional hearings in the more than two and a half years since Gadhafi fell.
The intelligence community “produced hundreds of analytic reports in the months preceding the Sept. 11-12, 2012, attacks, providing strategic warning that militias and terrorist and affiliated groups had the capability and intent to strike U.S. and Western facilities and personnel in Libya,” according to a report by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that was released in January.
Yet the most outspoken proponents of U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011 were largely silent after the end of the NATO mission, even though some had called for no-fly zones, regime change and a heavy U.S. ground footprint in the post-Gadhafi period. For example, of all press releases issued between the 2011 intervention and the 2012 Benghazi attacks by McCain and his Republican ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, only two pertained to Libya.
The chairman of the new House select committee has a mixed record on Libya. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., voted against a resolution that would have cut off funds for the U.S. air war. But he also supported one intended to keep the U.S. from providing the kind of military presence that some argue was needed to prevent Libya’s post-Gadhafi decline into chaos. That resolution read in part: “The President has failed to provide Congress with a compelling rationale based upon U.S. national security interests for current US military activities regarding Libya.”
Amid complaints that the Republican-inspired House investigation is aimed primarily at derailing the presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the Benghazi attack, members of Congress from both political parties offer various explanations for why they showed so little interest in Libya before the attack and so much interest now: They were consumed with other world problems, the administration did not give them the documents needed to conduct oversight, the job belonged to the Armed Services or Foreign Relations committees.
“I think there is plenty of blame to go around in terms of Congress disengaging and supporting the light footprint (in Libya after Gadhafi’s fall), but there is only one commander in chief,” Republican Graham said.
Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., a former member of the House Armed Services Committee who voted Thursday against appointing the select committee, and who also voted against authorizing the U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011, said that some member of Congress did ask questions about what was taking place in Libya in the months after Gadhafi fell, but that the issues were not pursued as aggressively as they should have been.
“There should always be more oversight by Congress, but most importantly there should have been funding” for security at U.S. diplomatic posts, Larson said. The committee was “looking at this, but not under the microscope and not under the political microscope.”
But in Thursday’s debate over whether to appoint the select committee, Congress’ oversight responsibilities and the broader ramifications of the U.S. involvement in toppling Gadhafi didn’t come up at all.
UPDATE: This story has been revised to reflect that Congress never authorized the U.S. participation in the NATO bombing mission.