NATO’s Intervention in Libya Was a Mistake

Christian Caryl of Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab has written a balanced and thoughtful piece that asks whether NATO’s intervention in Libya deserves the blame for precipitating the current chaos in Mali. Mali’s troubles include a(n initially) Tuareg-led rebellion in the north and a coup inspired partly by the northern war; the coup has now given way to an ostensibly civilian-led transition that will likely be rocky.

Caryl calls the Libyan civil war “a proximate cause for the success of the Tuareg rebellion.” As to the question of whether not just the general crisis in Libya, but also the Western intervention against Qadhafi specifically, is responsible for events in Mali, Caryl’s answer is more qualified. Caryl quotes Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, who argues that Western powers may have been able to do more to prevent the flow of weapons out of Libya. Caryl ends with the exhortation, “Even in situations where there is ample justification for using force against dictators or war criminals, policymakers would be well-advised to take a good look at the possible negative side effects of their actions.”

I would like to endorse Caryl’s position (disclosure: Caryl spoke to me when he was writing the piece) and offer my own personal view that NATO’s intervention in Libya was a mistake (Caryl does not state this view and my views on that point are mine alone). I felt at the time of the intervention that it was a bad move and I believe subsequent events have added weight to that perspective. It is important to assess the outcome of the intervention in Libya both for an understanding of events in North Africa and the Sahel but also because future interventions will be debated, and undertaken, some of them on the premise that Libya represents a success.

I would cite two trends as evidence that the intervention was a mistake: instability inside Libya and fallout in the region. While the civil war would have produced some chaos regardless, I think the chances are strong that without the Western intervention, Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s side would have defeated the rebels and Qadhafi would have remained in power, an outcome that would have reduced the resulting regional chaos.

Who knows, right? In the case of a world where Qadhafi survived and triumphed, we’re talking counterfactuals, and in the present, we’re talking about immensely complicated political situations where multiple factors are present. It’s not an experiment in a laboratory that we can run again and again to see what permutations would have caused what precise outcomes. We have to work with flawed and incomplete evidence, surfacing, disappearing, and shifting in real time. Then we cobble together interpretations of that evidence.

But here is the evidence I see.

In Libya:

Protesters are in the streets daily, demanding services and accusing council members of being as corrupt as their Gaddafi predecessors. Officials are similarly quick to describe protesters as puppets of pro-Gaddafi elements.

The Transitional National Council, hastily formed during the early days of the revolt by tribal elders and local leaders, is struggling to replace itself with a representative government. Its flowchart of reforms describes a 20-month process from the drafting of a new constitution to the election of a national legislature.

But Libyans are not in a methodical mood. In Misurata, which saw some of the war’s most intense fighting, the local militia booted the Transitional National Council and held its own election months ahead of schedule.

In Tripoli, the traffic lights work, but are universally ignored.

“Why do you need an AK-47 to tame the traffic?” Sabri Issa, a petroleum services company owner, asked while watching four young militia fighters gruffly directing the clots of cars around Martyrs Square, their automatic rifles waving at windshield height. Two police officers sat in their car a few yards away. “They do nothing to control these guys,” Issa said. “We have a government in name only.”

Some will say those phenomena represent Libya’s “growing pains.” I see them as signs of instability in the present and as ill omens for the future.

In the region:

Tens of thousands of refugees in Niger, Chad, and the countries of North Africa, as well as some in Europe. Further strain on food-insecure communities and governments with limited resources. Exacerbation of anti-Washington sentiments in communities far beyond the proverbial “Arab street” – many people I know in Kano, for example, strongly disagreed with NATO’s decision to intervene. Economic damage stemming from the loss of remittances from workers in Libya to communities south of the Sahara. Diplomatic struggles over the fate of Qadhafi’s lieutenants and family members. Fears that ethnic violence in southeastern Libya will spread to Chad and Sudan. Weapons on the loose. And war in Mali.

The conflict in Mali is certainly multi-causal. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. Had Qadhafi remained in power, a Tuareg rebellion may well still have broken out in Mali at some point. But just because an event is multi-causal does not mean the importance of one of those causes should be minimized. As Dan Murphy writes, “What seems clear is that the timing of all this is inextricably linked to events last year in Libya.” Events did not have to play out in this way and to take the particularly chaotic form they did.

The argument I am making in this piece – that the intervention against Qadhafi was a political mistake – can be complemented by others, especially arguments that question the legal basis within the American system for authorizing American involvement and/or that say the intervention in Libya creates a bad precedent for interventions elsewhere. The intervention also exemplifies a double standard, one noted – and often explained in terms that are cynical about US motives in general* – by people around the world. One can accept these arguments or not; I believe the political argument stands on its own.

But let’s be honest. Although political correctness might prevent them from saying so, I imagine some who supported the intervention in Libya feel that the regional consequences matter little. Mali, though formerly upheld as a model of “African democracy,” is usually seen as geopolitically peripheral, as are Niger and Chad. Whatever chaos results there, supporters may still feel the intervention was worthwhile. And I believe that some American elites, even if they express concern about “anti-Americanism” overseas, would not substantially adjust major policy decisions to take into account how those decisions might affect perceptions of Washington in Kano, or Nairobi, or Jakarta. The political consequences of the intervention that I cite will not necessarily trouble such thinkers – and that probably warrants a post of its own.

Finally there is the moral argument. To say that the intervention was a mistake opens me up to accusations that I am an apologist for Qadhafi, for dictators, for violence against civilians. I am not. Those accusers I would point back to the question of double standards, to situations past and present when Washington dismissed calls for intervention. Those who use the language of absolute morality in American politics are often relativists cloaking their specific interests and preferences in a mantle of righteousness – I look elsewhere for the sources of my moral vision. And I would point the accusers to the consequences. We have heard, with Iraq and with Libya, that interventions would be neat and straightforward. The aftermath of interventions has been anything but.

*I do not believe that the intervention in Libya was primarily motivated by Western thirst for Libyan oil but a serious analysis of the consequences of the intervention must take into account the fact that many people around the world believe that was the primary motivation. Perceptions matter even if one disagrees with them.

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20 thoughts on “NATO’s Intervention in Libya Was a Mistake

  1. I’m not sure whether one can make a judgement on whether the Libyan intervention was a mistake or not, it is too early.

    Mali would have had problems, anyway, and so would most of the Sahel. The Sahel is full of failed and failing states and something, somewhere would eventually have led to conflict.

    You also haven’t taken into consideration Gaddafi’s history. Gaddafi was responsible for a lot of the instability in West Africa in the late eighties and nineties. Would a “post-revolt” Gaddafi revert to his old tricks? We don’t know, but there is the possibility that he could have embarked on another spree of spreading instability (sanctions didn’t prevent the first spree).

    We don’t know where Libya will go from here, but there is a possibility that Libya will split into two (three) separate countries, more homogeneous and easier to form consensus. That won’t be a bad thing for Africa, because Africa’s colonial boundaries are a fraud.

    (About American elites – please note that what the “American elite” think about Africa matters less today than it mattered a decade ago.)

    • Chavuka, thanks for weighing in. In a sense, of course, it is always too soon to tell. Perhaps in a year we will see a prosperous and stable Libya and the present regional insecurity will die down. Perhaps not.

      You also make a good point about Qadhafi’s mixed role in the region – I do not want to depict him solely as a source of stability, given that he was often the opposite. But I think the manner of his fall and the particular dynamics of the Libyan civil war have been more damaging to Libya and to the region that other outcomes might have been.

      You are certainly correct that no one knows what will happen in Libya.

      • Two concepts are likely to dominate the conversation on African politics in the next few decades – “self-determination” and “democracy”, and neither of them will necessarily lead to a more stable Africa.

        But democracy and self-determination must be encouraged. True, the Libyan debacle has the potential to destabilise nations like Chad, Niger and Mali, but if the leadership of those countries provided a sound economic foundation for job creation, their young men wouldn’t have been forced to migrate to Libya in the first place.

        An Africa in which the leadership sees the need to provide employment for its teeming masses of unemployed youth is an Africa with inclusive economic growth. If the leaders aren’t smart enough to see the national security implications of inclusive economic growth, then frustration will find expression in self-determination.

        When the dust is cleared, Africa will settle on a stable equilibrium.

  2. Good article, I agree with your point of view. See also contributions to the Africa security studies group on Linked-In.

  3. Great article. I, like you, was against intervention in Libya. Working in the region, most recently in northern Mali, and keeping an eye on the region as a whole over the past few years, it seems like some of these outcomes, were semi-predictable. Of course, it is always easy to say that when speaking in the past tense… However, I think most people with a healthy dose of history of post-colonial West Africa could have foreseen (maybe not the precise events that are currently unfolding, but ) at least some of the adverse consequences resulting from Gaddafi’s overthrow. Especially due to the hasty nature of the intervention. It seems like another unfortunate case of western powers just making a move without full grasping the consequences, and having no plan for the post intervention scenario. Its shameful.

    Any rate. Keep up the good work. Its a pleasure keeping up with your blog.

  4. I don’t think NATO/AL’s intervention was measurably riskier than allowing Gaddafi and the revolutuonaries to war in a vacuum. Gaddafi was already beginning to blur his borders by importing fighters and weapons, and the opposition wouldn’t have been so easily defeated after the initial battles. The situation could instead escalate to a potentially uncontrollable state for every side. However many parts of NATO’s campaign could have been improved, so this negligence has multiplied Libya’s collateral damage. The Obama administration/UNSC did a poor job of explaining their mission to the world and this confusion manifested at the political and military levels. Supporting friendly regimes in the region hasn’t improved the image of America’s short-term thinking either.

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  6. I spoke with a former Nigerien member of government who had personally met Gaddafi (and thought him to be unstable from his one-on-one interview), but told me that NATO’s involvement in Libya was a huge mistake that would bring nothing but trouble for the region. This official did admit that Gaddafi had been responsible for supporting a lot of the rebel movements in the region–particularly with the Tuaregs and that there probably would have been a bloody massacre in Benghazi by Gaddafi’s troops, if not for NATO involvement. I think many people just prefer the devil they know to the devil(s) they don’t know.

    I’m a bit surprised that no one in the discussion has mentioned Syria’s current situation which does provide almost a text-book mirror case of Libya in that the West (i.e. NATO) chose not to get involved with force (as of this writing). Certainly one can’t claim that regional stability around Syria is better as a result, nor that the average Syrian is pleased to live under an absolutist tyrannical regime.

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