What Will Interventions Look Like After Libya?
Smoke rises during clashes between the Libyan military and Islamic militias in Benghazi, Libya on Oct. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Mohammed El-Sheikhy)
A little more than five years ago, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973, authorizing all necessary measures to protect Libyan civilians as Muammar Qaddafi responded to anti-government protests with threats calling demonstrators “rats” and “cockroaches.” Within months, the Libyan dictator who ruled the country for more than four decades would be overthrown by rebels backed by NATO-led airstrikes.
Today, life in Libya remains dangerous and uncertain for many. Political turmoil and fighting between competing militias sparked a fractious civil war in 2014, creating a power vacuum that has allowed ISIS to establish its biggest base outside Iraq and Syria.
The chaos in Libya has raised the question of whether the 2011 NATO intervention was a mistake. President Barack Obama told The Atlantic succinctly, “It didn’t work,” in an interview published in April.
“We actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a U.N. mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion — which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap,” Obama told The Atlantic. “We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”
So where did Libya go wrong?
Foreign policy experts point to a myriad of causes, chief among them the lack of a plan for the day after Qaddafi’s fall and Libya dropping off the list of priorities for the United States and its NATO allies.
“Once Qaddafi was gone, essentially the United States took its eyes off the ball,” said Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who focuses on political transformations in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. “The Libyans at the time were saying the right things, about setting up a constituent assembly, elections, etc., so that we kind of lulled ourselves into believing that things were going in the right direction.”
Because of its oil wealth, its small population and lack of deep sectarian divides, Libya was viewed by some as a simpler intervention than Iraq or Syria. But Obama would concede, “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected.”
Believing Libya’s political elite when they said the population was united behind them was another mistake, according to Karim Mezran, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
The international community failed to understand that Qaddafi still enjoyed support in Libya, said Mezran, who noted that by the time the West intervened, the nation was already in civil war, not a revolution.
“Immediately after the fall of the regime, the West should have pushed the Libyan elite to start a program of national reconciliation and dialogue,” Mezran said. “Instead, there was a rush to elections, which compounded the divisions in the country, creating the fragmentation that then evolved into the polarization of 2014.”
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, pointed to two specific factors that exacerbated the political dysfunction: an electoral system that was more likely to encourage tribal and geographic divisions, and a political isolation law that excluded anyone from Qaddafi’s regime from government.
“Those types of exclusionary laws aren’t productive at sensitive periods of time when you need to ensure that as many Libyans as possible have a stake in the political process,” Hamid said. A law that excluded even those who eventually turned against Qaddafi encouraged people to turn against the system, he said. “In other words, people have an incentive to undermine the system because they’re not being included.”
Within that political climate, Libya has given rise to two rival governments since 2014 — each of which has turned to local militias for protection and influence.
The General National Congress, based in the capital of Tripoli, is loosely aligned with a conglomeration of Islamist militias and revolutionaries called “Libya Dawn.” The House of Representatives, based in Tobruk, has aligned itself with the forces of Khalifa Haftar, a former general in Libya’s army who fell out with Qaddafi before the 2011 uprising. Some have accused Haftar of trying to become Libya’s next dictator, a charge he denies.
The proliferation of local militias, which were never disarmed and demobilized in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s overthrow, highlights another failure of the intervention, experts said.
Even before political dysfunction gave Libya competing parliaments, the government began paying the militias, giving them little incentive to lay down arms. “They thought it was more secure to buy them out,” Mezran said, adding that militia leaders would often inflate the number of fighters they had in order to receive salaries for non-existent fighters. “This allowed for the entrenchment of the interests of these militias into continuing to maintain their power, their military strength, rather than dissolving into a new national army.”
The militias arose independent of the political establishment in Libya, and used their military strength to exert influence over lawmakers while foiling attempts to rebuild a national army, experts said.
“From the beginning, the government didn’t have much power — the power was in the hands of the militias,” Ottaway said.
Asked what the international community could have done about the militias, Ottaway said, “It would have meant a large-scale operation to dismantle the militias, and that was certainly not in Obama’s playbook. It was not in the playbook of any European country.”
“Nobody wanted to own that country,” she said, noting that long-term engagement is also no guarantee of success. Just look at Afghanistan and Iraq, said Ottaway.
In the U.S., the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with ongoing violence in Libya and Syria, have led to a rethink of when — or even if — such interventions are worth the cost.
The Libya intervention has come up repeatedly in the 2016 election. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has been on the defensive about her role in advocating for U.S. involvement during her time as secretary of state. Clinton has called the situation in Libya “deeply regrettable,” but said that without intervention “we would be looking at something resembling much more what we see in Syria now.” Her Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has criticized the decision, telling The Guardian in December, “She was proud to have been involved in regime change in Libya … without worrying, I think, about what happened the day after and the kind of instability and the rise of ISIS that we have seen in Libya.”
The leading contender for the GOP nomination, Donald Trump, has voiced an isolationist view, saying in January, “If we would have never done anything in the Middle East, we would have a much safer world right now.”
Whichever candidate wins the White House, they’ll be inheriting a foreign policy that has turned more cautious about interventions in recent years. As a president elected on a platform of ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama famously pulled back from airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria in 2013. The U.S. has since largely stayed on the periphery of Syria’s war, but with the help of allies, it has launched targeted attacks against ISIS.
In Libya, after taking the lead in the initial air campaign against Qaddafi starting in March 2011, the U.S. pulled back to a largely supportive role, leaving control of the operation to allies in NATO — primarily France and Great Britain. This led to criticism that the administration was “leading from behind.” But it’s in line with Obama’s belief that allies should share the burden or take on more responsibility in their regions. He has talked about “free riders,” and called on America’s allies to do their share.
But some foreign policy experts point out that the U.S. and its allies often have divergent interests. In the case of Libya, regional powers such as Qatar, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates all backed opposing sides in the conflict, arming either the Islamist militias or the forces of Gen. Haftar.
“If there’s any big lesson from the last eight years, it’s that we don’t always want our allies to be more active or involved,” according to Hamid, author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World. “We don’t always want them to take responsibility for their own regions, because often times our allies, especially those that aren’t democratic — that would include most of our allies in the Middle East — they don’t share our interests and values nearly as much as we would like.”
Hamid observed that the United States’ European allies, even if they often do share the U.S.’ values and interests, may not feel fully committed to a task if America doesn’t have any “skin in the game.”
However, Ottaway saw more of a catch-22 when it comes to the U.S. and interventions.
“It’s true no matter what we’ve done in the Middle East we’ve made a mess recently, or a mess has ensued,” she said. “The problem is that the United States has created expectations over the years that it can solve all problems. So if the problems are not solved, then it becomes the fault of the United States.”
And Libya — emerging from four decades under dictatorship with no political institutions, no prior experiments with democracy, with a weak national identity and almost no civil society — posed a most unique problem. Given what Libya was emerging from, Mezran said, “how can you demand that the population hold itself to standards that are hard for any country under the best possible conditions?”