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.

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.