A glance at the title the National Interest gave Kuperman's article, America's Little-Known Mission to Support Al Qaeda's Role in Libya, and comments at the NI website about the article suggest that some folk believe the U.S. government and other Western powers knew all along that Al Qaeda was behind the Libyan uprising -- a question that Kuperman avoids asking, and for good reasons.
One reason is that it would be a quixotic undertaking to put Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy in the dock and cross-examine them about what they knew and when they knew it regarding Al Qaeda's activities in Libya. Instead, Kuperman took the position that the U.S. and other Western powers simply screwed up. From one angle that's an inarguable conclusion because even if they'd gone so far as to plot with Al Qaeda to overthrow Gaddafi, the consequences were such that one can fairly say the Western powers screwed up no matter which way you cut it.
And so, after laying out the facts of his investigation, Kuperman takes to the lectern to deliver a succinct assessment of how screw-ups of such magnitude can happen. So I'm going to leap over his description of the case itself and go straight to his summary, which I've broken into bullet points:
- The hidden Al Qaeda roots of Libya’s revolution highlight several important lessons. First, media reporting about emerging crises can be dangerously inaccurate.
- One reason is that journalists tend to gravitate to big cities—in this case, Benghazi, where the biggest protests initially were peaceful—and thus overlook key events in the hinterlands such as the Islamist rebellion.
- Massive nonviolent demonstrations also offer great visuals that tend to dominate international news coverage even when they are not actually driving events on the ground.
- In addition, some journalists love David vs. Goliath stories so much that they may be blinded to the reality of Goliath vs. Goliath.
- Another problem is that Western reporters in authoritarian countries tend to sympathize with and become dependent on local dissidents, who may then feed them disinformation.
- The upshot is that consumers of news—especially policymakers—need to carefully vet media claims before responding with action as monumental as military intervention.
- The senior U.S. officials who advocated for intervention—in particular, White House special assistant Samantha Power, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama—appear to have suffered from two major misperceptions.
-  They did not realize that Libya’s rebellion was led by Islamist militants, and  they believed that Qaddafi’s forces were targeting innocent civilians. These fundamental errors had two conceivable causes:
- One possibility is that the U.S. intelligence community misunderstood what was happening, perhaps being misled by rebel propaganda, and thus provided bad guidance to policymakers.
- The alternative explanation is that U.S. spy agencies got it right, but administration officials instead relied on press accounts because they failed to read or distrusted the intelligence reports.
- In either case, an inspector general needs to pinpoint the cause of this massive policy failure, so that steps can be taken to avoid any repetition.
- Another uncomfortable lesson for Western liberals is that two of their policy prescriptions for Libya backfired by facilitating Al Qaeda’s rebellion.
- First, Qaddafi pursued political reconciliation with Islamists by releasing hundreds of prisoners—but they reciprocated by overthrowing and killing him.
- Second, in early 2011, Qaddafi refrained from robust retaliation against the armed uprising to avoid harming civilians, but this gifted the insurgents momentum and encouraged other Libyans to join in, helping them quickly conquer the east.
- Had Qaddafi instead ignored liberal counsel by keeping most jihadis locked behind bars and brutally attacking the rest, the Al Qaeda insurgency might never have gotten off the ground.
- A final takeaway for humanitarians is that their advocacy of quick intervention to avert incipient genocide may also backfire. The inclination toward rapid response is understandable given that civilians can be killed relatively swiftly, as I myself have documented in The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda.
- However, a rushed decision increases the danger that misinformation or disinformation will prompt counter-productive intervention. In Libya, both pathologies manifested, as the West failed to recognize that Al Qaeda was leading the rebellion and then fell for opposition propaganda that Qaddafi was slaughtering civilians. The precipitous timing of the intervention—barely one month after the first whiff of protest against Qaddafi—undoubtedly contributed to these misjudgments.
- Thus, humanitarians are left with a terrible dilemma: wait too long to intervene and risk failing to prevent violence, or intervene prematurely and risk exacerbating violence. Faced with this ominous choice, the Hippocratic principle of “first, do no harm” would recommend more patience.
- Ironically, in 2011, the swiftness of intervention in Libya was touted as a historic success that would help codify the emerging norm of the “Responsibility to Protect.” In retrospect, such haste empowered Islamic militants, amplified human suffering and created a failed state—all of which has undermined international support for any future humanitarian intervention.
It should go without question that the criticisms in the above points also apply to the West's intervention in Syria.