Why America Lost in Libya

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?

Evidently not. The Ba’athist killing machine in Syria operates with impunity and without pity, yet there is no talk of military action, even though Assad has killed more people in Syrian cities than Qaddafi did in Benghazi. (Where is the Arab League, which played a decisive role by backing the no-fly zone over Libya?) In Bahrain, the monarchy quashed a grassroots protest by the Shi’a majority, which the Sunni ruling class has long treated as second-class. It did so with fulsome assistance from the House of Saud, which does not allow women to drive, let alone vote, shows disdain for democratic principles and exports not just oil but also violent religious extremists. Such disapproval as there was from Washington and Europe was mild and perfunctory. This dissonance didn’t much bother the NATO states that waged a six-month war to topple Qaddafi, insisting that what occurred in Libya was a nationwide uprising symbolized by the Transitional National Council (even though the organization’s support in Libya at large was hardly self-evident). So did we back a popular rebellion, or did we support localized revolts that then were able to topple the regime only because of NATO’s bombing, training and funding?

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria has hailed the Libya campaign as a new stage in U.S. foreign policy and a savvy move by Obama. Henceforth, apparently, we will embark on Libya-like missions when there is: approval from the Security Council, regional support for using force against an offending regime and robust participation from allies, which together spare the United States the unpopularity and burden involved in acting as a self-anointed global cop. We should be thankful that this prognosis is almost certainly wrong; rarely will these enabling conditions conjoin. If anything, in the future we can expect more Russian and Chinese resistance for UN-sanctioned interventions that ostensibly are designed to end the killing of innocents and then adopt a far grander agenda.

After the Qaddafi regime falls—and once NATO intervened there was little doubt that that would eventually happen; the alliance knew that risked being utterly discredited otherwise—there will be Herculean challenges in Libya. Much outside help will be needed. But here’s the rub. The economic context for Libya’s postwar reconstruction is dramatically different than Iraq’s or Afghanistan’s, not that it was all that great in those instances. This time, there is a global economic crisis and the United States and Europe have neither the money nor the inclination to do very much.

Yet there’s a lot to do. A war—which is what it is, the administration’s legal mandarins’ verbal contortions notwithstanding—that began in March and is still not over has left between 10,000-30,000 dead. Many of those killed were able-bodied men, and their families will now have to carry on with less income. The country’s infrastructure (including Tripoli’s hospitals, now overwhelmed with the wounded and short of doctors and essential supplies), has been hard hit. Oil production has plummeted—before the war it was 1.6 million barrels per day, now it is about 60,000—and will not reach prewar levels anytime soon. In June the UN estimated that 1 million refugees had fled to neighboring countries, primarily Egypt and Tunisia; they will now need help reestablishing themselves upon returning.

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between negative liberty (freedom from coercion) and positive liberty (freedom to pursue a purposeful life). The latter has a strong economic (and social) component. It remains to be seen whether NATO, having acted in the name of the former, will stick around and spend what it takes to see the latter advance. Doubtless, we will hear that such worries amount to defeatism or naysaying, that Libya is a rich country awash in oil and will soon ramp up its output and so have its own resources with which to rebuild. Sound familiar?

What makes reconstruction in Libya even more difficult is that it will have to be pursued within a political vacuum. In the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, which were wholly homegrown in contrast to Libya’s, the defection of the armed forces doomed the authoritarian regimes, but the key institutions of day-to-day governance remained. In Libya, those structures have collapsed altogether, and whether it is keeping law and order, framing coherent policies or allocating resources efficiently, the country faces problems that Egypt and Tunisia—where, in any event, there was no massive economic damage—simply did not. Moreover, the Libyan resistance consists of groups with different leanings and fighters from the west (Benghazi and its environs) and the east (the Nafusa Mountains), who were brought together by their determination to oust Qaddafi and by NATO’s diplomatic pressure. It will now have to display unity of purpose and move from winning war to building peace—a process that requires rather different dispositions and skills and, the record shows, is full of pitfalls.

Some supporters of the war say it was a bargain: a despotic regime was brought down and the United States spent no more than $1 billion. But a bargain by whose standards exactly? Perhaps, to use business-school jargon, the campaign was “cost effective” from the perspective of those privileged to be in the top 10 percent of the nation’s income earners—as most of the high commentariat likely is—but hardly for those Americans who live in poverty (now some 43 million) and without jobs or health insurance (14 million and 52 million, respectively) in what is the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and in a country which, in income inequality, ranks 73rd in a list of 125 countries, sandwiched between Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire. For the latter, one would think, spending $1 billion in six months is no bargain at all, not least because the Obama administration and the proponents of the war have never made clear what American interest was being served by it.