Libya: Another Graveyard of Empires?

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With U.S. and European  strikes now pounding Libyan government positions, a new chapter is being written in the long and bloody history of Western military intervention in North Africa. At present, it seems unlikely that foreign governments will deploy boots on the ground. But here are some invasions of Libya that didn’t go quite as planned.

Cambyses’ Lost Army: In antiquity, Libya was home to the famed oracle at the oasis of Siwa, a mystical site venerated by peoples across the Mediterranean. In 525 B.C., the Persian emperor Cambyses, then arguably the greatest potentate in that part of the world, sent a force of 50,000 soldiers to lay waste to the oracle’s temple site after its prophesies scoffed at Cambyses’ pretensions for global conquest. But the army never reached Siwa.To quote an earlier piece I wrote on the archaeological effort to locate Cambyses’ lost legion:

One morning, while the army was having breakfast, writes the ancient historian Herodotus in The Histories, it was set upon by “a violent southern wind, bringing with it piles of sand, which buried them.” The Greek continues, “Thus it was that they utterly disappeared.”

But Cambyses’ defeat couldn’t thwart the hubris of the ancient world’s most famous general: Alexander the Great managed to bring his army through the desert to the oracle at Siwa and the priests, probably recognizing what was best for them, told Alexander he’d conquer it all.

Those Barbary Wars: In the U.S., the Barbary Wars — when the fledgling navy of a fledgling nation took aim at North African corsairs, including those harbored in Tripoli — are remembered as glorious expeditions that brought renown to a new nation in the West. Not for nothing does the U.S. “Marines’ Hymn” extol exploits “From the halls of Moctezuma/ To the shores of Tripoli.” But, in truth, American successes in the two Barbary wars (1801-1805; 1815) were limited. Let it not be forgotten that the cash-strapped, weak U.S. government was paying regular tribute to the rulers of cities like Algiers and Tripoli in a desperate bid to save American ships from being seized by privateers based in these ports, which were satellite towns loosely (very loosely) governed by the Ottoman Empire. After a few clashes — most memorably a daring rescue of a captured American ship anchored in Tripoli — and an American raid on the city of Darnah, east of Benghazi, the First Barbary War ended as a fillip to U.S. prestige, but not much else. Within two years, U.S. ships were once more prey to the pirates of these cities. The Second Barbary War led to the gradual end of centuries of North African privateering, but only following the decisive intervention of other European powers.

An Italian Quagmire: By the early 20th century, Italy, a united nation-state for just a bit more than fifty years, sought to flex its muscles and expand its dominion by colonizing the lands just across the Mediterranean from the Italian peninsula. Rome managed to wrest control from the increasingly feeble Ottomans the territories of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan — these now comprise modern Libya, an ancient Greek term for lands west of Egypt that the Italians resurrected for their empire. Spurred by the ambitions of the Fascist demagogue Benito Mussolini, tens of thousands of Italians moved to the cities of Libya’s coast, leading to a dual-tiered society of settlers and natives that mirrored French Algeria. But Italian rule was always challenged, most notably by Omar Mukhtar, a religious teacher from the influential Senussi order. His guerrilla campaigns — the object now of lessons on desert warfare in military academies — tormented Italian troops for nearly two decades until a particularly ruthless offensive under Mussolini’s favored general, Rodolfo Graziani, saw Mukhtar captured and hanged in 1931. But though the Italians defeated Mukhtar, they could never defeat his legend; his rebellion remains mythic fodder for Arab and Libyan nationalism. It’s also endlessly invoked by Gaddafi, who, on a recent trip to Rome, met Italian President Silvio Berlusconi with a large blowup picture of Mukhtar pinned to his lapel.

Last Stand of the Axis: North Africa was a significant theater of World War II. The Allies and Axis powers sparred in particular over Cyrenaica, the eastern region of Libya whose major city is Benghazi — today, at the center of fighting between forces loyal to Gaddafi and the rebels seeking his ousting. A British offensive from Egypt in late 1940 routed much of Italy’s army in Libya, prompting a relief expedition by the German Afrikakorps, under the command of the famed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. For a time, the “Desert Fox” turned the tide, pushing the British back in campaigns and sieges that would bring Libyan cities like Tobruk, among others, to global attention. He was widely admired for his tactical brilliance and anachronistic sense of chivalry. Winston Churchill, a warmonger par excellence, praised Rommel: “We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.” But eventually the combined U.S. and British presence reversed Rommel’s successes and the Axis powers were driven out of Libya; Italy’s North African empire was snuffed out by 1943. But the client kingdom left behind in Libya by the British was weak and, a bit more than two decades after the end of World War II, a military led coup toppled the king in 1969. Into the breach, stepped in Col. Muammar Gaddafi.