This week, the worst storm in recent memory pounded the Green Mountains in eastern Libya with rain, pushing two poorly maintained, half-century-old dams to their limit. Just before 3 a.m. on Sept. 11, the first dam collapsed. An enormous wall of water surged into a riverbed that bisects the coastal city of Derna. It stalled briefly at the second dam eightmiles downstream and then scooped that and everything else up in its path, tossing the debris into the sea. By dawn, a third of the city was gone, leaving thousands missing. The number of dead may reach as high as 10,000, Libyan aid coordinators say.
Many people in Libya are calling what happened a tsunami, not a flood, to attempt to capture the physics and power of the devastation. Derna’s nearly 100,000 residents, now stranded, urgently need shelter, food, water and medical care. They need temporary bridges to replace those that were washed out and engineers to rebuild all the roads and fix parts of the city’s operational but battered port. They need cellphone service to reach family members and friends and body bags for the corpses being pulled out of the sea. Thousands are homeless, and officials fear other dams in the area may also burst.
The scale of destruction would be daunting for any well-run and well-equipped country to handle. For Libya it will be impossible, given the disaster zone’s sudden isolation, lack of equipment and depth of the country’s political dysfunction. Since 2014, Libyans have lived with two competing governments locked in a power struggle that will almost certainly slow the large-scale recovery effort to come. On Wednesday the Egyptian military was on its way with heavy equipment, as well as at least one amphibious craft carrier from Italy, Libya’s former colonial power. But it’s the United States’ unique and tragic history in Libya, its technical expertise and depth of resources in the region, that create a moral obligation for America to step into this breach.
Many Americans will ask: Why should we care? In 2011, the United States spearheaded the international effort to save the city of Benghazi from attack by Libya’s longtime dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a well-intentioned move that fell into the trap of mission creep. Eventually, a NATO-led intervention overturned Mr. Gaddafi’s regime. The United States left most of the rebuilding to its European allies. It focused its efforts on promoting democracy over state building, a decision that ironically helped pull down Libya’s early democratic gains.
Security across the country quickly deteriorated, enabling the 2012 Qaeda-affiliated attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. With the domestic political blowout that followed, the United States retreated — first from Benghazi and then from Libya. The political split between the east and west of the country emerged in the turbulence, a rupture that ordinary Libyans have paid a heavy price for ever since.
One need look no further than the city of Derna for proof. Famous in Libya for its natural beauty, waterfalls and azure waters, Derna in the 1950s and ’60s was a center for education and the arts. But by the late 1990s, under Mr. Gaddafi’s repressive rule, Derna had become a hot spot for radical opposition. It was no surprise that the Qaeda-affiliated group that participated in the 2012 Benghazi attack was from Derna or that two years later, ISIS briefly set up what it called an Islamic emirate in the city. Since then, residents of Derna and eastern Libya as a whole have felt —as they have historically — abandoned, especially when it comes to infrastructure, like the dams, which many feared would fail them one day.
At a time of profound need, the Derna catastrophe affords the United States a rare opportunity to once again take a side — not with one or the other of Libya’s political factions but with the Libyan people. It is a chance for Washington to return to the grounded idealism that once motivated the United States to join NATO in the first 2011 intervention: a desire to protect civilians from harm.
On Tuesday, President Biden announced that the United States would be sending emergency funds to Libya via relief organizations and “coordinating with the Libyan authorities and the United Nations to provide additional support.” Mr. Biden added, “We join the Libyan people in grieving the loss of too many lives cut short.”
The latter sentiment is perfectly on pitch. The former, however, suggests that the Biden administration prefers to keep Libya at arm’s length, presumably out of an abundance of caution, given the devastating effect of the Benghazi political scandal on American domestic politics.
While some international aidis now on the way, no other country is currently able to provide the same degree of relief as the United States, whether now or two weeks from now. There are risks associated with any aid mission — radical groups, for instance, remain active in the region — but those risks can be managed. What Washington can provide immediately and over the coming weeks is technical know-how, embodied by groups like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Seabees, and heavy equipment like landing craft and helicopters to move large amounts of aid into Derna by sea and air. The United States may have lost its opportunity to be a first responder, but the reconstruction needs will continue for weeks, months and even years.
Substantial American assistance will also be welcome — even if quietly — to the warring political camps, who are now under tremendous pressure from their own citizens to provide help.
This kind of surgical approach to aid is consistent with the concept of “expeditionary diplomacy,” to which Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed in Benghazi, subscribed: the idea that targeted, mission-driven efforts with a relatively low footprint can produce outsized diplomatic payouts. This idea drove Mr. Stevens to make a last-ditch effort to try to draw U.S. government attention back to the city beforeit fell to extremists and he was killed.
After years of treating Libya as a problem to contain and keep at bay, the United States has an opportunity, now, through this disaster, to re-engage directly with the Libyan people. We should embrace it, first and foremost for Libyans’ sake but for our own long- and short-term regional interests, as well.
Ethan Chorin is a former American diplomat to Libya and is the author of “Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco That Pushed America and Its World to the Brink.”
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