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.

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.