The Washington Post Column

How Libya continues to flummox Europe

When I was in Libya a couple of years ago, I met a man who was on a European Union mission. If memory serves, he was writing a report on the Libyan media for an E.U. institution, or perhaps an E.U.-funded one. In any case, he was walking around Tripoli, earnestly conducting interviews and holding meetings at the union’s expense.

To my knowledge, nothing came of the report. If it was ever published, now it’s outdated. All other similar reports written at the same time, funded by the European Union or E.U.-member states, have met the same fate. Yet all of the organizations that disbursed that money at the time surely felt that they had made a “contribution” to Libyan stability.

They were wrong. Neither that E.U. report nor any of the others ever resulted in a coherent E.U. policy in Libya, toward media or anything else. Efforts to carry out “training” were piecemeal; attempts to advise were scattered. If there was a moment when Europe, whose leaders led the effort to get rid of Moammar Gaddafi, might have made a difference to Libyan reconstruction, the moment has passed. Instead, Libya disintegrated into civil war — and disappeared from Europe’s political agenda altogether. The British prime minister, who actively supported the Libyan revolution, has barely mentioned the country during the entire British election campaign.

But now Libya has reappeared in the context of another story: The desperate mass movement of migrants across the Mediterranean. Almost daily, rickety fishing boats leave the Libyan coast for Europe. Sometimes the boats make it to Sicily or Lampedusa, where the migrants wind up in crowded camps. Sometimes they sink: More than 800 migrants drowned in a single accident in April. An oil-rich country that should be a sponge for immigrants from Africa and Syria is instead serving as a staging ground for what are often suicidal journeys across the Mediterranean. Libya’s human traffickers laugh at the idea that their nation’s authorities could stop them. The Libyan coast guard base in Tripoli has just one rubber dinghy at its disposal. None of its members has left harbor since January.

And Europe’s response? An “emergency meeting,” during which all heads of government expressed their deep concern — and agreed to send a few more boats to patrol the coastlines of Italy and Greece. The actual source of the crisis — Libya itself — went unmentioned.

The unspoken, undiscussed truth is that, even as the crisis in Libya was unfolding, everybody knew that the Western effort was inadequate and that the European effort in particular was all over the place. The problem wasn’t lack of money but lack of focus, lack of coordination and an inability to learn lessons from the past. Over and over again, in Libya as in every other crisis, programs have been duplicated or used at cross purposes. Aid has been delivered according to criteria created in Copenhagen or London, often having nothing to do with what is happening on the ground.

And the lessons weren’t learned. In 2009, Ashraf Ghani, now the president of Afghanistan, co-authored a book with Clare Lockhart that argued international aid had drastically weakened the Afghan state: Instead of building Afghanistan’s capacity to deliver health care or education, foreign donors set up parallel structures. Charities hired the best people away from the government and took all the money, too. Recently, an acquaintance who works in Mogadishu told me that exactly the same problem now afflicts Somalia. Instead of shoring up the central government, international policy seems designed to make it weaker.

The Mediterranean migrant problem is an emergency, and emergencies are never a good moment for reflection on the chaos of Western aid policy, or indeed reflection about anything at all. But it’s bizarre that it’s not even a small part of the conversation. Before any problem can be solved, it has to be identified. Until Europe’s leaders agree that Libya’s failed state is the real source of the migration catastrophe, they can’t even begin to think about fixing it.