Five Ways You're Wrong About Libya

A war shrouded in myth.

Three years after the start of the Western military operation against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, “Libya” continues to be upheld as a war done right. It was quick, cheap, successful, and executed primarily by our allies. In the immediate aftermath, it was “hailed as a model intervention” by then U.S. envoy to NATO Ivo Daalder and Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stravidis. Even after the terrorist attack in Benghazi, President Obama proudly asserted that “we were able to—without putting troops on the ground, at the cost of less than what we spent in 2 weeks in Iraq—liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years, got rid of a despot who had killed Americans.” Despite the president’s characterization, Libya today remains shrouded in misconceptions.

1. Libya was a European operation

Contrary to popular perception, the United States spearheaded the Libyan operation. U.S. cruise missiles neutralized Libyan air defenses and allowed European jets to fly unchallenged, Americans flew three quarters of the tankers needed to sustain the approximate 100 sorties a day, and the United States quietly supplied precision-guided munitions when European countries ran short of supplies early on in the war. Moreover, according to The Guardian, the United States provided 8,507 of the 12,909 personnel engaged, 153 of the 309 of aircraft committed and 228 of the 246 cruise missiles fired. In Daalder and Stravidis’ own words, the “reduced” contribution was still “crucial and irreplaceable” and the goal was “to enable other allies and partners to fully participate in the operation”, not to let them lead in Washington’s stead.

2. Libya was cheap

The President may have billed the war as less costly than a fortnight in Iraq—approximately $1.65 billion with no American lives lost—but the total cost of the war and its aftermath is far higher. First, Libyan oil and gas production, which accounts for 96% of total government revenue, remains far below pre-war levels. Having produced on average 1.65 million barrels per day (bpd) of high-quality light, sweet crude oil before the war, Libya’s oil production today is at 230,000 bpd as militias and protests over revenue distribution have wreaked havoc on the energy industry. Just last week, after being ousted for failing to stop the independent export of oil by Eastern rebels, Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan fled, seeking refuge in Europe. Second, without an effective means of securing Gaddafi’s fifteen to twenty thousand Soviet-era MANPADS, many of these weapons have found their way into other regional conflicts. They are likely responsible for the downing of an Egyptian military helicopter in the Sinai and have been used by militant groups across the region. More broadly, Libyan-trained extremists have found their way into conflicts from Syria to Mali.