The Real Benghazi Is Stumbling Toward Civil War

But political constraints in Washington make any significant U.S. action in a disintegrating Libya a long shot.

A Libyan woman displays her voting ID during legislative elections at a polling station in Benghazi. (National Journal)

Since the attack that took the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in September 2012, Benghazi has taken on a life of its own, serving as everything from a rallying cry against the Obama administration to a derisive hashtag poking fun at administration critics. But for all the talk about the year-and-a-half-old scandal, what's happening in the real Benghazi, Libya, today has received little attention. As limited military aid and training flow into Iraq and Syria, Libya is slipping closer and closer to outright civil war.

After the end of the 2011 NATO military campaign in Libya that ousted Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the transitional government that was set up seemed to be poised for a peaceful transition of power. But before long, former rebels and militia groups, unhappy with the slow pace of change after Qaddafi's government was toppled, began to clash with government forces.

The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi prompted many Western governments to close up their diplomatic missions in Libya, and the situation there continued to unravel. In October 2013, then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was briefly abducted from a hotel in Tripoli by an armed militia; three months later, the country's deputy industry minister was assassinated.

Now, a retired general named Khalifa Haftar has launched a full-on campaign against Islamist militias and what's left of the Libyan government, and a parliamentary election last week drew a weak turnout that reflected Libyans' lack of confidence in a tattered political system. In one district in Benghazi, Islamist militants fired on a local security headquarters on election day, killing four and wounding at least 30. Haftar's promises to rid the country of "Islamist terrorists" (in his words) have won him support among Libyans who are exhausted with the violence and uncertainty that has plagued the country for years.

Despite the deteriorating situation, the U.S. has indicated that it's unlikely to get involved in Libya again anytime soon. "There is an acknowledgement that there is only so much we can do," a U.S. official told Reuters. The farthest the U.S. has been willing to go so far is to send special envoys to Libya to try to bring together warring factions, a move that is unlikely to make a dent on its own. A $600 million international program to train a Libyan "General Purpose Force" that was announced last year has yet to get off the ground. The limited scope of announced American involvement in Iraq and Syria makes clear the lack of appetite for further engagement in the region. In all likelihood, Libya is on its own as it struggles to create a cohesive government once again.