Don't Blame NATO for Libya

Don't Blame NATO for Libya

The United States vastly overestimates the amount of control it can exert over the troubled, deeply divided societies of the Middle East.


In mid-March 2011, as Libyan government troops were closing in on Benghazi, the de facto capital of the rebellion that had started the month before, NATO decided to act. Its bombardment, which followed votes of support in the Arab League and UN Security Council, turned the tide of war. Seven months later Muammar el-Qaddafi was dead and his regime in tatters. Once this initial intervention came to a close, outsiders seemed to lose interest in the future of Libya.  Despite initial optimism, no successor government has been able to unify the country’s various ethnic groups, tribes and fundamentalists.  Now, five years after the fall of the tyrant, Libya is one of four failed states in the Arab world, and no end to its suffering is in sight.

Criticism of the two NATO decisions – to intervene and then to leave – has been widespread, reaching from the campaign trail to the pages of elite policy journals. President Obama himself told Chris Wallace of Fox News that the worst mistake he made in office was “failing to plan for the day after” in Libya. Whether by commission or omission, therefore, critics contend that the disasters that followed are largely the fault of the United States and its allies.


A little more thought is warranted before these conclusions are allowed to become conventional wisdom. The low-cost NATO intervention was hardly the disaster that its critics portray; the decisive moments in the destabilization of Libya had already occurred, and the country was unlikely to return easily to the pre-rebellion status quo. More importantly, no amount of post-intervention activity on the part of the West could have produced a better outcome.  Rebuilding the Libyan state was not something outsiders could do. 

Analysts and observers of U.S. foreign policymakers commonly overestimate Uncle Sam’s ability to control events abroad. Understanding the limits of American power in the Middle East is going to be one of the most important challenges for the next president. Although the region is likely to continue to be chaotic for quite some time, the Libya experience contains lessons for those willing to look for them.

Libya and the Illusion of Control

If there is one thing that everyone can agree on, it is that today Libya is a mess. Two governments compete for legitimacy, and large swaths of the country are under the jurisdiction of neither. Oil production has ground to a halt, and the economy has shrunk precipitously. Around the small city of Sirte, which is on the coast halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi, Islamic militants claiming affiliation with ISIS have imposed a harsh version of Islamic law on the locals, beheading and crucifying various transgressors. Intermittent cease-fires provide hope, but by most reasonable measures, life in post-Qaddafi Libya has been worse for its long-suffering people. Many would no doubt agree with the old Arab saying that it is better to have forty years of tyranny than one day of anarchy.

How much was this the fault of the United States? What would Libya look like if the world’s only superpower had made better choices? All criticism of U.S. actions rests on the assumption that the outcome was not inevitable, that different decisions in Washington would have produced different outcomes in Tripoli. The United States could have exerted more control over the situation, in other words, if it had only tried.

This may be true, but it also may be the case that critics are falling victim to one of the most pernicious and common forms of misperception. Some four decades ago, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer noted that people typically overestimate their ability to effect outcomes, which she described as the “illusion of control.” Her subjects – and thousands more in follow-up studies since – consistently believe that they could exert control over even the most obviously random outcomes. The implications for international politics are clear, and dangerous: Leaders regularly fall under the impression that their influence over events is greater than it is, and act accordingly.  They are often surprised and disappointed with the results.

Americans may well be particularly susceptible to misperceptions of control, which tend to be directly correlated with power. People with higher socioeconomic status and those who are members of dominant groups are more likely to overestimate their ability to control events.  Powerful people – and countries – tend to be far more confident than others. Leaders of superpowers may well have distorted perceptions regarding their ability to affect the course of events. U.S. observers had a greater structural predisposition than others, for example, to believe that they would have been able to control outcomes the Persian Gulf following an injection “creative instability” in 2003.

In a real sense, there is little need to wonder what would have happened had the United States chosen different paths. We have clear, recent examples of intervention and nonintervention in Arab states. Whether outsiders chose to sit on the sidelines during a conflict or start it, refuse to help the recovery or engage in a massive, concentrated attempt at post-conflict nation building, the outcomes have been the same. NATO intervened in Libya but did not engage in nation-building, and the country descended into civil war; it declined to involve itself when fighting broke out in Syria and Yemen, and both countries tumbled into civil war; and the United States both toppled a dictator and tried to rebuild Iraq, and civil war followed. To think that the United States can control the various actors of the Middle East is one of the most persistent, pathological illusions of U.S. foreign policy, one that will continue to inspire poor decisions until it is understood.

The United States is powerful, but not omnipotent. In the memorable words of Derek Reveron of the Naval War College, it is superpower, not a superhero. A brief recap of the criticism of the NATO intervention and then apparent abandonment of Libya can help illustrate the limits of that superpower, and perhaps give some insight into how to deal with the various crises in the region moving forward. That criticism revolves around five basic points, most of which are based on the rosiest possible counterfactual assumptions. They represent best-case alternative scenarios rather than the most plausible outcomes in a region that usually disappoints optimists. The following sections examine these claims in turn, and find that while some have more merit than others, overall they demonstrate the kind of pathological illusions of control that are common to great powers.

Was the War about to End?

In Foreign Affairs last year, Professor Alan Kuperman made a strong, plausible case that the intervention was a blunder. His first and perhaps most important point is that NATO inadvertently prolonged the civil war and caused more suffering and death than would have otherwise taken place. Kuperman assumes that the rebels in Benghazi would have essentially given up once Qaddafi’s mercenaries marched in and the war would have ended, which is a rather optimistic assessment.

Overrunning those few remaining rebel cities – especially Misurata, which was under siege, Benghazi and Torbruk – might not have been quite as easy as regime forces expected. Smaller cities en route had fallen to government troops without much resistance, it is true, but Benghazi in particular was different. It had been the hotbed of revolt, the city where the main protests began and the longtime eastern rival to Qaddafi’s power base in the west. Its defenders, a ragtag mixture of amateur soldiers and defectors from the Libyan army, knew they could expect no quarter if they lost. They had set up training camps to teach the basics of soldiery by the first week of March, so they were a bit more prepared than their counterparts to the west. According to some reports, nearly 12 thousand fighters had received the three-to-five day rudimentary course by the time Qaddafi’s forces arrived. Arms were coming in, from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and probably also from Egypt. Overall, the battle for Benghazi was not likely to be as quick or clean as both Kuperman and Qadaffi expected. A prolonged battle was just as likely as a government rout.

While the rebels did not have the ability to overthrow Qaddafi by themselves, it is quite possible that they could have sustained their fight for quite some time. A number of Libya’s larger tribes had joined the rebellion, in both the east and west, along with many of its diplomatic and military elite. Even if government troops eventually overran their territory, a guerrilla campaign would have been quite likely. A similar, undeclared war had taken place in eastern Libya in the late 1990s. Preparations were being made for such a conflict, had the northern cities fallen.

Other Arab-spring rebellions in deeply divided lands did not end quickly and easily. The Syrian rebels took a beating at first from the much better armed government forces, but it was not long before they were able to battle Assad’s loyalists to a stalemate. The only governments able to restore order were the monarchies, who tended to have a bit more legitimacy than their secular counterparts. The suggestion that an end to the war in Libya was right around the corner accepts uncritically the rosiest possible alternative scenario, one that is virtually without precedent for the nearly simultaneous regional revolutions.

John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said on Meet the Press in May 2016 that he found it “hard to believe that Qaddafi would have been able to stay in power” with or without NATO intervention. At the very least, the rebellion probably would have lingered on for quite some time. By degrading Qaddafi’s capabilities, NATO may well have helped the country get past the first phase of the rebellion – overthrow of the government – and move on to the next, in some ways more difficult stage, of trying to rebuild a deeply divided, wounded, angry country.

Was a Bloodbath Prevented?

The second major, untenable assumption held by critics of the intervention is that Qaddafi would not have followed through with his threats to slaughter civilians if no intervention had occurred.  Prevention of a bloodbath was crucial to NATO’s justification for action; if no such crime was about to occur, then the humanitarian intervention had no purpose. Kuperman suggests that not only were the Colonel’s forces poised to end the rebellion, but they would have done so without any major bloodletting in Benghazi. To back up this claim, he points to the low percentage of women killed during the regime’s recapture of smaller cities, and the assurances it made to protect the innocents that came back into the fold.

Mercy was not the only thing promised by Qaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam in the lead-up to the battle in Benghazi, however. During the rambling speeches they gave after the protests broke out, the dictator and Saif struck so many different tones that nearly any message could be read into them. Qaddafi called the rebels “greasy rats” who were that had to be flushed out “house by house, home by home, street by street, person by person.” “This time we will not be so merciful,” he promised, “We will not be forgiving.” Saif said that the rebellion was being perpetrated by drunks and drug addicts manipulated by the West and the deceitful Arab media.  Offers of reconciliation were sometimes peppered into their talking points, but the alternative message was also clear. There was ample reason to believe that the worst lie ahead for their enemies.

Furthermore, NATO was concerned not only for the civilians who would die in the initial fighting, but also for their fate once it was over. While it seems true that Qaddafi’s armed forces had targeted mostly rebel fighters to that point, that calculation might have changed if and when the crisis ceased to be existential to the regime. Defeating the rebels was its first priority, and punishing the guilty may well have been its second. Totalitarian regimes do not tend to look kindly upon rebels. Perhaps Qaddafi would have spared their lives and tried to reintegrate them, as he promised. Perhaps his forces would go house-to-house and root them out of their holes, as he also promised. Little in his history seemed to suggest that he was a forgive-and-forget type of leader.

Kuperman acknowledged the potential for widespread post-conflict retribution, only to dismiss it on the grounds that Qaddafi had not done so after previous rebellions. But what was happening in 2011 was unlike previous rebellions, and Benghazi was unlike other cities. The suggestion that NATO did not save a large number of lives with its intervention is only sustainable if one accepts the most optimistic counterfactual outcome, and trusts in the promises of a dictator while ignoring his threats. In the Arab world, such happy endings rarely come to pass.

The Reformist Son?

A third line of criticism suggests that the intervention was essentially unnecessary, since Qaddafi did not represent the future of his country. The tyrant was in poor health, and was preparing the country for a transition to his liberal, reformist son. Saif al-Islam had studied at the London School of Economics (where he may or may not have done his own work, but no matter), and certainly spoke the language that outsiders liked to hear. He courted Western academics and journalists, promising eventual elections and liberalization. Human rights would be respected under his leadership, the world was told, and Libya would gradually move toward modernity.  There was therefore an alternate path forward toward reform, one that would have been slow, steady and peaceful. That is, if NATO had not intervened and screwed it all up.

It is worth remembering that similar hopes accompanied the Syrian transition from Hafez al-Assad to his son Bashar in June 2000. Bashar was an ophthalmologist who had done his residency in London, and he too had impressed Western intellectuals with the rhetoric of moderation and change. In power, however, he proved to be as tyrannical as his father.

Sons of tyrants are rarely schooled in moderation and restraint. It is not entirely their fault, since they tend to be raised by sycophants rather than disciplinarians, and rarely are given limits.  Spoiled megalomaniacs like Caligula and Kim Jong-un are much more likely to emerge from such families than well-rounded, empathetic, tolerant leaders. One should not expect fundamental reform to emerge from the houses of totalitarians.

Saif would have also run into significant structural impediments blocking his ability to enact reforms. It is far easier to speak of change when out of power than make it a reality when in office. The small circle of allies that kept Hafez al-Assad on the throne would not tolerate moves by his son to share power with the various national out-groups. Were Saif sincere in his desire to reform Libya, in other words, he would have had a hard time pulling it off.

Finally, Saif’s actions during the rebellion make it clear that his commitment to reform was not terribly deep. When the protests broke out, Saif transformed immediately from moderate to enforcer. He seemed as personally insulted by the impudence as was his father, and expressed zero tolerance for their cause. According to the International Criminal Court, which indicted Saif in June 2011 for crimes against humanity, he played a large role in the violent, deadly suppression of unarmed protests. Any chance of a gradual, bloodless transition to a better Libya – which was never great to begin with – died when the rebellion began. Saif clearly demonstrated that his commitment to his family’s rule outweighed any he might have had to reform.


Did the intervention undercut the global nonproliferation regime? Professor Kuperman thinks so.  The fourth broad line of criticism of the intervention holds that the United States undermined its own interests by unseating Qaddafi, who had been basically cooperating over the course of the prior decade regarding his nuclear matters. After the invasion of Iraq, he agreed to shut down his program and open his country up to inspection. The relationship of the latter to the former is a matter of some dispute, but there is no doubt that Libya got out of the nuclear business as part of Qaddafi’s broader charm offensive. Critics worry that future would-be proliferators were sent the counterproductive message that cooperation with the international community could not guarantee their safety. The reward that the Colonel received for his decade of good behavior was a literal and figurative knife to the back.

This is the easiest criticism to dismiss. Fortunately, the nonproliferation regime has repeatedly proven to be more durable than the many alarmists over the years have believed. Proliferation momentum has not increased since the Arab Spring. In fact, the only other active program in the world has been halted by the deal that Iran cut with the group of negotiating states. Apparently the Iranians did not seem to think that Qaddafi’s experience was terribly instructive for their case.

It is worth noting that nuclear proliferation has essentially ground to a halt since the end of the Cold War. The world has seen the removal of one nuclear state (South Africa) and the addition of another (North Korea), for an overall net proliferation of zero. Any promises made to Qaddafi, or impressions he might have held prior to his overthrow, do not seem to have affected nuclear weapons calculations one bit.


At first, the post-Qaddafi transition seemed to go reasonably well. In late 2012, Libya expert Dirk Vandewalle argued in Foreign Affairs that the country’s politics represented a “surprising success” story, one for which guarded optimism was warranted. At the very least, in the initial aftermath of the final collapse of Qaddafi’s regime, it seemed reasonable for NATO to hold off on further intervention. There were warning signs that all was not as it seemed, however. Sporadic fighting never ceased, and localized revenge attacks occurred throughout the country.  The U.S. consulate was infamously attacked in Benghazi in September 2012, and remnants of Qaddafi’s mercenary army traveled to Mali and caused predictable mayhem. The security situation grew steadily worse as time went on, and in May 2014, when the results of a national election were rejected by large parts of the country, the slide toward state failure began in earnest.

Could outsiders have brought stability to Libya? Once Qaddafi was killed, NATO faced a choice:  It could either engage in a nation-building enterprise or essentially let the locals work their future out for themselves. It is his decision to opt for the latter that haunts President Obama, who doubts the wisdom not of intervention but of the follow-up, or lack thereof. The loudest current criticism of the Libya intervention, one that is widespread and increasingly bipartisan, is that the United States intervened in a civil war without planning for the aftermath. It squandered the victory, and let Libya descend into its current chaotic madness.

What critics usually are less clear about is exactly what the President should have done.  Nation-building, or post-conflict stabilization, or “phase four operations” in Pentagon-speak, comes with no manual or blueprint. Although it has become a common mission for the United States in the post-Cold War world, the truth is that we don’t really know how to do it. 

Experience has shown that there are some circumstances under which it almost certainly cannot succeed. Unfortunately, Libya was a virtual paragon of such a case: It had no unifying national identity, and instead was a collection of tribes, ethnic groups and religious sects; its various groups were geographically distinct; thanks to forty-two years Qaddafi misrule, there was no functioning civil society to speak of; the economy was fragile, overly centralized and dependent upon one resource; the military was divided; and, perhaps most importantly, there were significant segments of the population uninterested in having their country rebuilt by outsiders.  Nation-building in Libya was a doomed enterprise, in other words, that Washington was wise to avoid.

The United States could certainly have provided security for the initial transition, as long as it was willing to take casualties as part of the effort. Standard formulas for such stabilization operations suggest that one soldier is required for every 40 or 50 civilians. Since Libya’s population was about 6.3 million in 2011, NATO would have had to deploy somewhere between 130 thousand and 150 thousand troops to bring the country under control (by this standard, as was repeatedly noted at the time, the pacification operation in Iraq was far too small to succeed.)  That certainly could have been done, had there been the political will to do to so.

Short-term stability and long-term harmony are two very different things, however. Any post-conflict deployment would have run into the same problem the United States faced in Iraq:  As soon as that occupying force left, struggles for power would commence, and war would return. Occupying troops can enforce peace upon weak domestic actors, but they cannot enforce trust. They certainly cannot create a national identity for unwilling parties. Unless NATO was prepared to leave a significant presence in Libya in perpetuity, with a slow but steady flow of blood spilling into the desert, no permanent stability was likely to arrive. Just like in Iraq, outside forces can delay civil war, but they cannot prevent it. It is sometimes better to stand aloof and let the local forces work out their own problems. As messy as that usually is, it is also the only chance that lasting peace and stability have.

Libya put historical and structural barriers in front of any outsiders who would try to build a coherent state, much less create a democracy. Like the other failed states of the Arab world, Libya was an artificial, postcolonial creation, the result of an attempt to create a unifying polity where none existed before. In a few countries in the region, like Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Turkey, there is longstanding nationalism that unifies the people. This is not so for Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. The latter are less states than a collection of ethnicities and tribes thrust together by geography and colonial convenience rather than common identity. Unfortunately for those who have sought to rule these territories, many of those groups have proud histories of not getting along.

None of the brutal strongmen who came to power in these divided countries made much effort to forge a cooperative, inclusive political or social order. Instead their divisive, repressive rules prevented the emergence of coherent civil society, which made these states even more fragile than they appeared. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, ethnic, tribal and religious anger bubbled just under the surface, ready to explode. There is little that outsiders can do to make the various groups trust one another, much less to create a national identity where none has ever existed.

Even if nation-building was a daunting proposition from a practical standpoint, did NATO have a moral obligation to try? Some argue that Obama should have rebuilt what he helped tear down, honoring the so-called “Pottery Barn Rule,” which holds that “if you break it, you own it.”  Former Secretary of State Colin Powell devised that oft-quoted metaphor as part of his failed attempt to get President Bush to rethink the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But while the rule might be enforceable in malls (although the Pottery Barn has been quick to point out that it has no such regulation), it can be profoundly counterproductive to both U.S. interests and ultimately to humanitarian intervention itself.

Once policymakers become convinced that nation-building inevitably follows intervention – which is essentially an underexamined intellectual relic of the Marshall Plan – they may refrain from conducting any peace enforcement operations. If Washington were content to intervene when warranted without the expectation of rebuilding afterward, then humanitarian intervention would be more likely and more lives can be saved in times of crisis. There are times when things need to be broken, to extend the metaphor, even if the United States is not always capable of putting them back together again. Kinetic military operations are, after all, what this country does best. The police do not have the responsibility to rebuild every time they intervene; such work is better left to social workers, or in this case to the United Nations.

At times visions of endless post-conflict quagmires have cost lives. In 1994, for example, the Clinton Administration could presumably have sent troops to Rwanda and brought an end to the genocide without involving itself much in the details of reconstruction, which would have saved at least some innocent Tutsis. If genocide had erupted again, the Marines could have returned.  The experience in Somalia is also instructive, if misunderstood. The United States led the effort of the international community to relieve a man-made famine in late 1992, and saved somewhere between 100 and 250 thousand lives. The mission was a resounding success, at least until it began to evolve beyond famine relief. Once the United States accepted the idea that its forces had to stay until a stable Somali state emerged, it began to engage in a wholly different task. It was nation-building, not humanitarian intervention, that failed in Somalia. As is always the case, the latter did not necessitate the former. Presumably the international community could have left Somalia with the promise to return if the warlords allowed famine to break out again. The Somalis needed to work out their own governance for it to be successful (and still do.) They can benefit from economic aid, training and ideas, no doubt, but not direction and micro-management from outsiders.

Unfortunately, no amount of external intervention can put Arab humpty dumpties back together again. The president did not err by failing to provide the resources for Libya’s transition to democracy; if anything, his mistake was believing that such a thing was possible in the first place, at least in the short run. Perhaps, if given enough time, the various factions causing the suffering and state failure across the Middle East will tire of fighting and consolidate around some sort of compromise government. That will have to be their choice, however, not ours, and no amount of insistence from the outside will bring them closer to peace.

It was the Arab Spring that shattered the Libyan illusion, not NATO. Whether or not the state can be reconstituted is yet to be determined. One thing is clear, however: Outsiders, no matter how well-meaning, cannot do it alone. President Obama was right to leave the mess to the locals, because not only was it their mess to begin with, but we cannot clean it up for them. We can help, advise and assist now and again, but the heavy lifting must be done by Libyans.

Looking Forward

The nearly ubiquitous narrative that the intervention in Libya was a disaster rests on very shaky ground. The country was spiraling toward disaster, and there was little that anyone could have done to stop it. The tragedy in Libya should instead serve as yet another reminder that there are significant limits on what can and cannot be accomplished by outsiders during civil wars in the Middle East. As much as we like to take credit or blame for events in that region, in reality our actions are not decisive. The future of Libya, as well as that of Syria, Yemen and Iraq, is largely out of our hands.

Someday the wars in these countries will end. It is helpful to remember that there was a quite similar, complicated, bloody civil war that took place in the region a generation ago, one that eventually settled into a more-or-less lasting peace. The conflict in Lebanon killed a much larger percentage of the country’s population than any of the active wars today are likely to do, and dragged on for nearly fifteen years. Attempts at peacekeeping by outsiders, including the United States, were ineffective and costly. The Lebanese had to sort out their issues themselves.  And eventually they did.

The real lesson from the recent history of Libya is a sad one, but unmistakable: The United States vastly overestimates the amount of control it can exert over the troubled, deeply divided societies of the Middle East. It is comforting to think that Washington can stop the region’s heartbreaking violence and build coherent states in its wake, to exert some control over the final outcomes, but it is an illusion. We can and should help those who flee the violence, but only the perpetrators it can bring it to a halt.

Christopher J. Fettweis is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University.

Image: Eurofighter Typhoon. Wikimedia Commons/Vladimir Korolkov/Public domain