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The Arab Spring at Five

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Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters A person reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States September 11, 2012.
Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: The Arab Spring at Five
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Setting the Record Straight on Benghazi

What Really Led to Libya's Chaos

There has been no shortage of attention paid to the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi. Most of the questions, however, have centered on the shortcomings in Washington’s response to the crisis, rather than the causes and effects of the Benghazi attack itself. A closer look at Islamist politics in Libya reveals that this singular event was part of a larger plan to create an Islamic State within Libya after the fall of former leader Muammar al Qaddafi

In fact, over the span of a few years, Libya turned from one of North Africa’s least radicalized countries into a global Islamist hub. Benghazi may have been a flash point in the story of Libya’s unraveling, but it is one event among many that has forever altered the country’s trajectory. To understand what led to the siege on the U.S. installation in Benghazi, one must look back to Washington’s rapprochement with Qaddafi.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 coincided with a process of Western rapprochement with Libya, opening the oil-rich country to foreign business. Crippling UN sanctions, prompted by Qaddafi’s 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, had already been suspended by 1999 after Qaddafi agreed to hand over two suspects for trial in The Hague. The U.S. State Department would have been content to see Qaddafi’s regime stew in sanctions indefinitely, but his readmission into the international community seemed inevitable. And so, the administration of President George W. Bush saw an opportunity to press Qaddafi, bolstering a narrative that the U.S. intervention in Iraq could help topple other rogue states. The administration could pressure Qaddafi to abandon his incipient nuclear and chemical weapons programs, and to compensate the families of the Pan Am 103 victims. The United States set up a diplomatic outpost in Libya in 2004, the same year that the EU arms embargo was lifted.

Although contentious within Washington (and the State Department in particular), the deal

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