The Skeptics

No, the Libya Intervention Wasn't a Humanitarian Success

Writing in Vox, Shadi Hamid attacks the “prevailing wisdom” that Libya’s chaos means that the 2011 U.S. military intervention there failed. That view, Hamid says, revises the coalition’s objective. The point was never stable democracy—an impossible standard in Libya—but to protect civilians from being massacred.

Hamid, an early advocate of bombing on behalf of Libya’s rebels, deserves credit for at least defending his position. Others who championed Libya as a model intervention turned their attention elsewhere as it deteriorated. Unfortunately, Hamid’s argument ignores the stated rationales for intervening, including his own, relies on a factually-challenged counterfactual to examine the consequences of staying out, and dodges the analysis of critics who predicted how intervention would increase Libya’s disorder.

A large record contradicts Hamid’s contention that democratization was never a goal of intervention. It’s true that the UN Security Council Resolution authorizing the bombing speaks of protecting civilians, not overthrowing the regime or democracy. But that was compromise language needed to win allied support. As Micah Zenko notes, U.S. actions show that regime change was always a de facto U.S. goal. Recent news reports suggest that U.S. officials understood from the get-go that bombing Gaddafi’s forces would likely embroil the United States in regime change.

Hamid himself took this view in 2011, when he argued that the objective of the intervention he favored was “not to pressure Qaddafi and his sons but to support pro-democracy forces and encourage…regime change.” When the regime fell, he called it a “powerful demonstration,” for other protesters and revolutionaries trying to democratize Middle-East and saw a “modelfor intervening in Syria. He credited the intervention for delivering “newfound freedom” to Libya and argued that the United States had to stay engaged to promote democracy there.

U.S. leaders also offered democratization as a reason for bombing. On March 28, 2011, President Obama argued that intervention supported “universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders…governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people.” The next day, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the same point: “While our military mission is focused on saving lives, we must continue to pursue the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to the Libyan people.” Testifying before the Benghazi Committee last fall, Clinton again gave Libyans’ democratic aspirations as a reason why the United States helped overthrow Gaddafi. There is no shortage of similar quotes from the U.S. and European leaders promoting the intervention.