Why America Lost in Libya

Another nation in shambles. Thousands dead. Over a billion spent. And not a single U.S. interest served.

The intervention in Libya by the United States and a handful of its NATO allies was advocated and cheered on by two foreign-policy camps—though not all of their adherents necessarily supported the venture—that disagreed on what and how much needed to be done by Washington. The first group (liberal internationalists) supported President Obama’s initial use of American bombs and missiles to destroy Muammar Qaddafi’s aircraft and air-defense systems, the later lead role played by other NATO participants, and continued U.S. provision of vital reconnaissance, intelligence, targeting information and drone strikes throughout. The second group (conservatives) decried Obama’s policy as too passive and as unbecoming of the United States, and their criticism became more vocal as what was billed in March as a short engagement—against a third-rate adversary—dragged on into the summer. Now both camps are happy that Qaddafi’s regime is done for, though the second is loath to credit a Democratic president with success. In short, there is a consensus among the most prolific, visible, influential and vocal commentators that the Libyan venture needed doing and that it has the potential to shape American policy.

So it’s a good time to register a dissent.

To begin with, the principles invoked to justify the Libyan intervention and the process by which it unfolded raise questions that ought to be debated. NATO, with the Security Council’s approval, acted to avert what was deemed an inevitable bloodbath in Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city that rose in revolt against Qaddafi in February (and was followed soon by the Bayda and Tobruk to its east and by Ajdabiya and Ras Lanuf to its west), no doubt buoyed by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. President Obama said explicitly on March 26 that a “bloodbath” loomed, and he followed up soon after by saying that a “massacre” would have occurred had the United States tarried; the administration suggested that hundreds of thousands of noncombatants would have been killed. But as Steve Chapman shows in an April 4 article in Reason magazine, Qaddafi’s March 17 warning that he would show “no mercy” was directed at the armed resistance in Benghazi, which was offered the option of surrendering and receiving a pardon. No bloodbath involving civilians occurred in Benghazi, and Chapman argues that the Qaddafi regime had not perpetrated mass killings of civilians in other cities over which it asserted control. The risk (and not the actual occurrence) of large-scale atrocities against civilians triggered the Libya campaign—a permissive recasting of the logic underpinning humanitarian intervention. While some have interpreted NATO’s move as the application of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P), an elemental principle of R2P is that military force be the last resort, used after diplomacy has been tried and has failed. But there was little diplomacy in evidence, and the United States and its NATO partners were quick to strike. French president Nicolas Sarkozy went one better: in March, he recognized the leaders of a rebellion about whom little was then known (and still is) and who controlled only Benghazi and its environment as the legitimate government of Libya. Soon, a mission mounted to protect civilians had morphed into one whose declared aim was—though the language was often disingenuous—to remove Qaddafi. You’d have to really stretch the March Security Council resolution (1973) to argue that it authorized any such undertaking, something Russia and China and other countries pointed out as the war progressed.

Qaddafi was a megalomaniacal tyrant; this fact, while obvious, bears repeating because criticism of the Libyan campaign is sometimes presented as implying sympathy for him (or for isolationism)—a dodgy maneuver that hinders honest debate about the intervention and what it implies for what the United can and should do in the world. While Qaddafi was a cruel despot, it is also true that, like many other despots, he was the leader of a sovereign state with which other governments—including, in recent years, the United States and the EU—conducted transactions, both political and economic. Besides, governments, ours included, resort to brutal means when they face rebellion, and this raises a question: is the logic underpinning the defense of the Libyan war that we ought to intervene when dictatorial regimes face uprisings?