Nine months ago, I wrote a piece titled “NATO’s Intervention in Libya Was a Mistake.” As the French-led intervention in Mali continues, Libya is once again on people’s minds. People ask what relevance the precedent of intervention in Libya has for Mali, and what connections there are between the intervention in Libya and the ongoing crises in Mali.
With regard to the latter question, one often hears two opposed viewpoints: either “Libya’s civil war and the ensuing intervention caused Mali’s crises” or “Libya’s civil war and the ensuing intervention did not cause Mali’s crises.” I think the debate is a false one: I think that the crises in Mali have multiple causes, of which Libya is an important one, but only one.
As Aaron Bady eloquently explains here in a different context, sometimes people ostensibly participating in a shared conversation actually want to have different kinds of conversations. The conversation some analysts want to have runs, “The causes of Mali’s crises are too complex to be reduced to fallout from Libya.” I agree with them in a limited sense, but I think the way some analysts make that argument has two political effects, intended or not. First, this argument can imply that fallout from Libya had a negligible role in Mali’s crises. I disagree with that view. Second, making this argument can allow a speaker to sidestep the question of whether policymakers in Washington, Brussels, or elsewhere made the right decisions on Libya. Tackling this second question is the conversation that I really want to have. This post and a forthcoming sequel are my way of responding to arguments about Libya and Mali but also my way of attempting to broaden the terrain of the conversation to include an appraisal of concrete policy decisions.
This post is meant to serve a ground-clearing function: I want to state plainly that the main reason I feel that the intervention in Libya was a mistake is that I think it had a negative effect on Libya. I want to preclude the possibility of anyone reducing my arguments to “Thurston says Libya was bad because Mali.” Even if Libya was an island I would regard the decision to intervene there as a mistake.
Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s treatment of his own people was deplorable. Yet the architects of the NATO intervention, framing their actions at times as a response to a perceived moral imperative to protect civilian life, planned poorly for the post-invasion period. A failure to soberly consider the possible unexpected consequences of intervention and transition has helped chaos to develop in post-Qadhafi Libya.
To my mind, the external intervention in Libya picked a winner in that country’s civil war. The intervention either picked the weaker of the two sides (this is my opinion) or accelerated a process whereby the rebels might have eventually defeated Qadhafi. In either case, the side that ultimately won the civil war – the National Transitional Council or NTC – was not prepared to unify the country politically and establish security and order. At present, the NTC’s successor organization the General National Congress does not effectively govern the country either.
The roots of political disunity and state weakness in Libya reach back into the period of Qadhafi’s rule (1969-2011) and before. As papers like this one describe, Qadhafi to some extent personalized the state while dismantling or undermining key political and social structures. The NTC does not deserve blame for all of Libya’s current problems, but I believe the intervention, by tipping the scales, put a body in “power” that cannot govern, especially in the short term.
Some observers have characterized the “new Libya” in optimistic terms. Libya’s July 7, 2012 national assembly elections met with Western acclaim for their relatively peaceful staging, their basically free and fair quality, and their results, namely an outcome where Islamists did not win.
But much news out of Libya is grim. There are a number of trends I could highlight, but two in particular are worth mentioning:
- The persistence of armed militias, of whom there may be as many as 1,700: see here, here, here, and here for commentary and reporting on this issue. These militias challenge state control and security while contributing to violence and disorder. An article from December sums it up: “Almost two years after the start of the armed uprising that felled the regime, the militias that formed to fight Qaddafi show little sign of real integration into national security forces, and some are using their considerable clout to influence political and security decisions as a wobbly government takes its first steps.”
- Assassination attempts against government officials, politicians, and security personnel: Defense Minister Mohammed al-Barghathi (January 20, 2013), Interim President of the General National Congress Muhammad al Maghariaf (January 6, 2013), Islamist leader Ahmed Abu Khattala (January 6, 2013), and police Colonel Mohammed Ben Haleem (October 13, 2012). There have also been assassination attempts against diplomats from Britain and Italy, and finally the tragic killing of US Amb. Chris Stevens and three other American diplomats in September 2012. I regard these episodes of targeted violence as both symptoms and causes of political instability in Libya. A government whose leaders routinely have brushes with death does not truly govern.
As a recent RAND Corporation report stated (.pdf, p. 3), “Security is the most immediate challenge today. Without it, progress in other areas will be stilted and likely fall apart…The attacks and ongoing violence since make it clear that Libya is not out of the woods yet. Even small numbers of moderately well-armed spoilers could push the country into a downward spiral of insecurity, recrimination, and violence.” International Crisis Group’s report “Divided We Stand” makes similar arguments while acknowledging the possibility of political progress.
Perhaps you interpret security challenges and other trends in Libya as “growing pains” for the new government. Perhaps you regard the present instability as an appropriate price to pay for ending the Qadhafi regime. Myself, I believe that tipping the balance in Libya’s civil war is one critical cause of the present instability, which has added to the tragedy that began with the civil war. I also fear that such instability will continue.
The conversation about whether the intervention in Libya was the right move or not could end there, could remain, so to speak, within the boundaries of Libya itself. But the conversation should not, I would say, end there. Later this week or early next week, we’ll talk about Libya and Mali.