The situation in Libya one year after the attack on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 is chaotic, dysfunctional and disheartening. It remains not as abjectly horrible as it could be—the General National Congress did this summer finally approve a framework (however imperfect) for electing a constitutional assembly, and UN-backed efforts are under way to create an unofficial dialogue of national reconciliation—but these advances paper over ever-deeper failings, many of which were not inevitable.

The Benghazi attack is now remembered for various obvious reasons: its brutality, the death of four Americans—including, ironically, a U.S. ambassador who played a singular role in advocating the NATO intervention that saved Benghazi from a massacre, the extraordinarily politicized domestic blame game that followed, and the fact that the United States has not yet been able to bring those responsible to account.

There has been scant public reflection on the attack’s broader repercussions on U.S foreign policy and its impact on regional perceptions of U.S. power and principles. The success (measured in units of chaos) of this one unforeseen event, perpetrated by a handful of heavily armed fanatics (or political operatives), played directly into the hands of those inside and outside Libya with an interest in seeing the country remain unstable and ungoverned.

The attack had the unforeseen consequence of quickly turning not only Benghazi, but much of eastern Libya into a no-go zone for Westerners, which accelerated assassinations of ex-Qaddafi regime officials, high and mid-level security officials, and journalists.  Insecurity in the east has deepened the country’s economic malaise. The Tripoli-based government and National Oil Company (NOC) are not in control of the country’s oil production, and labor strikes at oil facilities in the east have caused exports to fall so low that they are not meeting domestic energy needs, further depriving the government of the wherewithal to establish a lasting social contract with its citizens.  Basic services from health care to water and power continue to be held hostage to politics, with almost no near-term prospect of reducing subsidies that absorb much of Libya’s annual budget and that thus prevent local spending on infrastructure.  Such a situation further undermines security and faith in government, even as tens of thousands of Libyans are, finally, being trained to help enforce stability in the major cities.  Talk of eastern autonomy has grown, not diminished.  The Muslim Brotherhood has profited from heightened unrest and has consolidated its political and coercive power, narrowing Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s range for maneuver, which was never very large. Despite having won a plurality in Libya’s landmark 2012 parliamentary elections, Libya’s progressivist-liberals are in retreat.  Another notable consequence of the Benghazi attack has been the continued transfer of weaponry to criminal gangs and al-Qa`ida franchises in sub-Saharan Africa. The Tunisian government recently declared a section of its territory bordering Libya and Algeria so dangerous as to be under “quarantine.” Those hundreds of loose stingers are (still) keeping many people up at night. 

Would these problems still be plaguing Libya had the attack not taken place? Most likely, but not to this degree.

Libya’s problems are once again overshadowed by a major policy conundrum in Syria, provoked by not an imminent atrocity, as was the case in Benghazi, but by an actual one, the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people (and not for the first time).  Libya is often called a false model, because NATO intervention precipitated a mess. The failure, however, was not in the intervention, but in the aftermath.  One reason Libya is no longer being touted as a relative success and the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine more entrenched as a policy norm, is that the unfortunately-named strategy of “leading from behind” somehow bled into a belief that what came next could be left entirely to others—or to the Libyans themselves.  With respect to Syria, is the United States going to adjust the model or commit the same mistake—that is, military action without simultaneous technical and humanitarian support?   

In a further sign of compass wandering, the Arab press has recently been abuzz with reports that the United States has been leaning on the Libyan government to allow drone strikes in eastern Libya, a move presumably connected to sealed indictments against some of those thought to have been involved in the Benghazi attack.  If the United States really knows who the perpetrators are, and the Libyans are unwilling or unable to act, there is precedent to pursue them.  But if the United States lets drone strikes be the proxy for other, more productive forms of engagement, it will only solidify distrust and animosity among a general population that is still, after all this, one of the most pro-American in the region.

Desperate circumstances tend to create opportunities for change.  If the United States is lucky and plays its cards right, it might be able to engineer some progress on two of the longest-standing and most serious policy issues of our time—Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian impasse—while avoiding a regional conflagration.  Progress doesn’t require Iraq war-level expenditure or boots on the ground; it requires a broader lens and the courage to stick to principle and resist forces that court chaos for political and commercial gain. 

If the United States does launch a “punitive” strike against Syria, such action should be accompanied, at the very least, by a one-two punch of robust humanitarian aid for the millions of wounded and displaced, as well as the establishment of safe zones to stem the massive outflow of Syrian refugees.  These moves would be a highly productive policy in the absence of any military strike.  Otherwise, the United States risks lighting sequential fires in the highly combustible forest that is Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, while missing potential opportunities to modulate the counterproductive policies of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah—and Israel—all of which are hugely worried about the consequences of total meltdown in Syria.   The West should simultaneously re-focus stabilization policies on Libya, which while not as volatile or populous a mixture as Syria is nonetheless slipping dangerously close to failed-state status.  It is not altruistic for the United States to invest, retroactively, in a Libyan model and keep collateral damage to U.S. regional interests to a minimum.

There are two basic lessons to take from the Benghazi attack: the first is that an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure.  The second is that the more complicated the situation, the more likely intervention will have unintended consequences.  Looking at the Libyan intervention writ large, two other lessons emerge: when applied strategically, in sufficient amounts and in a timely fashion, humanitarian aid and technical assistance can be a powerful policy tool for mitigating risk and cooling conflict.  Second, remotely-launched strikes, like invasions, require contingency plans. If we have learned, or can cram these lessons before launching missiles into Damascus, there may be hope.