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.
Above all, while the intervention itself may have been “cheap”, the bloodshed did not stop upon Gaddafi’s death. While no American soldiers died during the operation, four American embassy personnel, including the ambassador, were killed during an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012. In the last two years, 1,200 Libyans have been killed in violent clashes and political assassinations. The costs of disorder remain high.
3. Libya was a new way of war
Operationally, the Libya venture has much in common with previous military campaigns. No-fly zones, ostensibly to prevent regime massacres, were imposed in Iraq and Bosnia in the 1990s. A few years later, the United States intervened to stave off the slaughter of Muslims in the Balkans. Even in the early Bush years, the early stages of Afghanistan already validated that tactical airpower combined with small special operations teams and larger indigenous forces can topple weak regimes.
Politically, Operation Odyssey Dawn, and its successor, was not innovative either. The Libya coalition was actually smaller than the so-called “Coalition of the Willing”: the Iraq coalition consisted of 15 out of 27 EU countries, and 19 out of 28 NATO countries committed troops whereas the Libya coalition included 11 out of 27 EU countries and 14 out of 28 NATO states. Similarly, it was not the first U.S. intervention to receive a UN Security Council imprimatur: the 1991 Gulf War, the Bosnian intervention, and the Afghan war all received a UNSC stamp. Lastly, more Europeans were involved in Afghanistan than in Libya.
4. Libya was a model for regime change
Libya is to regime change what, as Eliot Cohen once wrote, air power is to other instruments of war: “gratification without commitment.” “Leading from behind” did indeed devastate the Gaddafi regime, but could not stabilize the country in the aftermath. Afghanistan and Iraq aside, the Bosnian war ended in 1995 with a sixty-thousand-strong peacekeeping force. Similarly, in Kosovo, a heavy bombing campaign—combined with a ground invasion threat—gave way to a fifty-thousand-strong NATO force, more than four thousand of whom remain to this day. At roughly the same population of both countries combined and twenty-nine times their land area, Libya received no such commitment and, unsurprisingly, is suffering accordingly.
5. Libya is replicable
Sadly, the Libya model, with a prominent European role, likely cannot be replicated elsewhere. First, the operation occurred just off the European coast, well within the range of European airbases. Second, Libya’s vast stretches of open desert terrain between population centers reduced the strain on intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities. Finally, Gaddafi’s forces were third-rate and had been declining for some time. If anything, European success was overdetermined: if Europe instead faced a more robust enemy, in more difficult terrain, farther from its borders, it is doubtful that it could achieve the same outcome. Rather than heralding Europe’s emergence as an independent security power, the Libyan operation highlighted its current limitations. Looking ahead, Europe’s declining defense budgets, dismal demographics, and political divisions make it unlikely to correct these deficiencies anytime soon.
Three years on, the Libyan war is best known for the doctrine of “leading from behind” and the Benghazi attacks. Libya should be remembered for the war that it was, rather than the myths it created.
Raphael Cohen and Gabriel Scheinmann are PhD candidates in international relations at Georgetown University.
Image: Flickr/magharebia. CC BY 2.0.