Libya and the 2011 NATO intervention there have become synonymous with failure, disaster, and the Middle East being a "shit show" (to use President Obama’s colorful descriptor). It has perhaps never been more important to question this prevailing wisdom, because how we interpret Libya affects how we interpret Syria and, importantly, how we assess Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
Of course, Libya, as anyone can see, is a mess, and Americans are reasonably asking if the intervention was a mistake. But just because it’s reasonable doesn’t make it right.
Most criticisms of the intervention, even with the benefit of hindsight, fall short. It is certainly true that the intervention didn’t produce something resembling a stable democracy. This, however, was never the goal. The goal was to protect civilians and prevent a massacre.
Critics erroneously compare Libya today to any number of false ideals, but this is not the correct way to evaluate the success or failure of the intervention. To do that, we should compare Libya today to what Libya would have looked like if we hadn’t intervened. By that standard, the Libya intervention was successful: The country is better off today than it would have been had the international community allowed dictator Muammar Qaddafi to continue his rampage across the country.
Critics further assert that the intervention caused, created, or somehow led to civil war. In fact, the civil war had already started before the intervention began. As for today’s chaos, violence, and general instability, these are more plausibly tied not to the original intervention but to the international community’s failures after intervention.
The very fact that the Libya intervention and its legacy have been either distorted or misunderstood is itself evidence of a warped foreign policy discourse in the US, where anything short of success — in this case, Libya quickly becoming a stable, relatively democratic country — is viewed as a failure.
NATO intervened to protect civilians, not to set up a democracy
As stated in the UN Security Council resolution authorizing force in Libya, the goal of intervention was "to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack." And this is what was achieved.
In February 2011, anti-Qaddafi demonstrations spread across the country. The regime responded to the nascent protest movement with lethal force, killing more than 100 people in the first few days, effectively sparking an armed rebellion. The rebels quickly lost momentum, however.
It was frightening to watch. I didn’t want to live in an America where we would stand by silently as a brutal dictator — using that distinct language of genocidaires — announced rather clearly his intentions to kill. In one speech, Qaddafi called protesters "cockroaches" and vowed to cleanse Libya "inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alleyway by alleyway."
Already, on the eve of intervention, the death toll was estimated at somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000. (This was when the international community’s tolerance for Arab Spring–related mass killings was still fairly low.)
As Obama’s advisers saw it, there were two options for military action: a no-fly zone (which, on its own, wouldn’t do much to stop Qaddafi’s tanks) or a broader resolution that would allow the US and its allies to take further measures, including establishing what amounted to a floating no-drive zone around rebel forces. The president went with the latter option.
The NATO operation lasted about seven months, with an estimated death toll of around 8,000, apparently most of them combatants on both sides (although there is some lack of clarity on this, since the Libyan government doesn’t clearly define "revolutionaries" or "rebel supporters"). A Human Rights Watch investigation found that at least 72 civilians were killed as a result of the NATO air campaign, definitively contradicting speculative claims of mass casualties from the Qaddafi regime.
Claims of "mission creep" have become commonplace, most forcefully articulated by the Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. Zenko may be right, but he asserts rather than explains why mission creep is always a bad thing. It may be that in some circumstances, the scope of a mission should be defined more broadly, rather than narrowly.
If anything, it was the Obama administration’s insistence of minimizing the mission — including the absurd claim that it would take "days, not weeks" — that was the problem from the very start. Zenko and others never make clear how civilians could have been protected as long as Qaddafi was waging war on them.
What Libya would look like today if NATO hadn’t intervened
It’s helpful to engage in a bit of counterfactual history here. As Niall Ferguson notes in his book Virtual Alternatives, "To understand how it actually was, we therefore need to understand how it actually wasn’t."
Applied to the Libyan context, this means that we’re not comparing Libya, during or after the intervention, with some imagined ideal of stable, functioning democracy. Rather, we would compare it with what we judge, to the best of our ability, the most likely alternative outcome would have been had the US not intervened.
Here’s what we know: By March 19, 2011, when the NATO operation began, the death toll in Libya had risen rapidly to more than 1,000 in a relatively short amount of time, confirming Qaddafi’s longstanding reputation as someone who was willing to kill his countrymen (as well as others) in large numbers if that’s what his survival required.
There was no end in sight. After early rebel gains, Qaddafi had seized the advantage. Still, he was not in a position to deal a decisive blow to the opposition. (Nowhere in the Arab Spring era has one side in a military conflict been able to claim a clear victory, even with massive advantages in manpower, equipment, and regional backing.)
Any Libyan who had opted to take up arms was liable to be captured, arrested, or killed if Qaddafi "won," so the incentives to accept defeat were nonexistent, to say nothing of the understandable desire to not live under the rule of a brutal and maniacal strongman.
The most likely outcome, then, was a Syria-like situation of indefinite, intensifying violence. Even President Obama, who today seems unsure about the decision to intervene, acknowledged in an August 2014 interview with Thomas Friedman that "had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria. ... And so there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction."
What caused the current Libyan civil war?
Critics charge that the NATO intervention was responsible for or somehow caused Libya’s current state of chaos and instability. For instance, after leaving the Obama administration, Philip Gordon, the most senior US official on the Middle East in 2013-'15, wrote: "In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster."
The problem here is that US intervention did not, in fact, result in a costly disaster, unless we are using the word "result" to simply connote that one thing happened after a previous thing. The NATO operation ended in October 2011. The current civil war in Libya began in May 2014 — a full two and a half years later. The intervention and today’s violence are of course related, but this does not necessarily mean there is a causal relationship.
To argue that the current conflict in Libya is a result of the intervention, one would basically need to assume that the outbreak of civil war was inevitable, irrespective of anything that happened in the intervening 30 months.
This makes it all the more important to distinguish between the intervention itself and the international community’s subsequent failure — a failure that nearly all the relevant actors acknowledge — to plan and act for the day after and help Libyans rebuild their shattered country.
Such measures include sending training missions to help the Libyan army restructure itself (only in late 2013 did NATO provide a small team of advisers) or even sending multinational peacekeeping forces; expanding the United Nations Support Mission in Libya’s (UNSMIL) limited advisory role; and pressuring the Libyan government to consider alternatives to a dangerous and destabilizing political isolation law.
While perhaps less sexy, the US and its allies could have also weighed in on institutional design and pushed back against Libya’s adoption, backed by UNSMIL, of one of world’s most counterproductive electoral systems — single non-transferable vote — along with an institutional bias favoring independents. This combination exacerbated tribal and regional divisions while making power sharing even more difficult.
Finally, the US could have restrained its allies, particularly the Gulf States and Egypt, from excessive meddling in the lead-up to and early days of the 2014 civil war.
Yet Libya quickly tumbled off the American agenda. That’s not surprising, given that the Obama administration has always been suspicious of not just military entanglements but any kind of prolonged involvement — diplomatic, financial, or otherwise — in Middle East trouble spots. Libya "was farmed out to the working level," according to Dennis Ross, who served as a special assistant to President Obama until November 2011.
There was also an assumption that the Europeans would do more. This was more than just a hope; it was an organizing principle of Obama administration engagement abroad. Analysts Nina Hachigian and David Shorr have called it the "Responsibility Doctrine": a strategy of "prodding other influential nations … to help shoulder the burdens of fostering a stable, peaceful world order."
This may be the way the world should operate, but as a set of driving assumptions, this part of the Obama doctrine has proven to be wrong at best, and rather dangerous at worst.
We may not like it — and Obama certainly doesn’t — but even when the US itself is not particularly involved in a given conflict, at the very least it is expected to set the agenda, convene partners, and drive international attention toward an issue that would otherwise be neglected in the morass of Middle East conflicts. The US, when it came to Libya, did not meet this minimal standard.
Even President Obama himself would eventually acknowledge the failure to stay engaged. As he put it to Friedman: "I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this."
Yet it is worth emphasizing that even with a civil war, ISIS’s capture of territory, and as many as three competing "governments," the destruction in Libya still does not come close to the level of death and destruction witnessed in Syria in the absence of intervention.
In other words, even this "worst-case scenario" falls well short of actual worst-case scenarios. According to the Libya Body Count, around 4,500 people have so far been killed over the course of 22 months of civil war.
In Syria, the death toll is about 100 times that, with more than 400,000 killed, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research.
We’re all consequentialists now
For the reasons outlined above, Libya’s descent into civil conflict — and the resulting power vacuum, which extremist groups like ISIS eagerly filled — wasn’t inevitable. But let’s hypothesize for a moment that it was. Would that undermine support for the original intervention?
The Iraq War, to cite the most obvious example, wasn’t wrong because it led to chaos, instability, and civil war in the country. It was wrong because the decision to intervene in the first place was not justified, being based as it was on faulty premises regarding weapons of mass destruction.
If Iraq had quickly turned out "well" and become a relatively stable, flawed, yet functioning democracy, would that have retroactively justified an unjustified war? Presumably not, even though we would all be happy that Iraq was on a promising path.
The near reverse holds true for Libya. The justness of military intervention in March 2011 cannot be undone or negated retroactively. This is not the way choice or morality operates (imagine applying this standard to your personal life). This may suggest a broader philosophical divergence: Obama, according to one of his aides, is a "consequentialist."
I suspect that this, perhaps more than narrower questions of military intervention, drives at least some of the revisionism over Libya’s legacy. If we were consequentialists, it would be nearly impossible to act anywhere without some sort of preordained guarantee that a conflict area — which likely hadn’t been "stable" for years or decades — could all of a sudden stabilize.
Was the rightness of stopping the Rwandan genocide dependent on whether Rwanda could realistically become a stable democracy after the genocide was stopped? And how could policymakers make that determination, when the stabilization of any post-conflict situation is dependent, in part, not just on factual assessments but on always uncertain questions of the international community’s political will — something that is up to politicians — in committing the necessary time, attention, and resources to helping shattered countries rebuild themselves?
The idea that Libya, because it had oil and a relatively small population, would have been a relatively easy case was an odd one. Qaddafi had made sure, well in advance, that a Libya without him would be woefully unprepared to reconstruct itself.
For more than four decades, he did everything in his power to preempt any civil society organizations or real, autonomous institutions from emerging. Paranoid about competing centers of influence, Qaddafi reduced the Libyan army to a personal fiefdom. Unlike other Arab autocracies, the state and the leader were inseparable.
To think that Libya wouldn’t have encountered at least some major instability over the course of transition from one-person rule to an uncertain "something else" is to have a view of political development completely detached from both history and reality.
A distorted foreign policy discourse
The way we remember Libya suggests that the way we talk about America’s role in the world has changed, and not for the better. Americans are probably more likely to consider the Libya intervention a failure because the US was at the forefront of the NATO operation. So any subsequent descent into conflict, presumably, says something about our failure, which is something we’d rather not think about.
Outside of the foreign policy community, politicians are usually criticized for what they do abroad, rather than what they don’t do. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, "[Qaddafi] was not a threat to us anywhere. He was a threat to his own people, and that was about it." If the US had decided against intervention, Libya would have likely reverted to some noxious combination of dictatorship and insurgency. But we could have shirked responsibility (a sort of inverse "pottery barn" principle — if you didn’t break it, you don’t have to fix it). We could have claimed to have "done no harm," even though harm, of course, would have been done.
There was a time when the United States seemed to have a perpetual bias toward action. The instinct of leaders, more often than not, was to act militarily even in relatively small conflicts that were remote from American national security interests. Our country’s tragic experience in Iraq changed that. Inaction came to be seen as a virtue. And, to be sure, inaction is sometimes virtuous. Libya, though, was not one of those times.
Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and the author of the forthcoming book Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.