Ten years ago today, the United States under President Barack Obama intervened in the nascent Libyan civil war. Using one of the most common tools of modern American statecraft, the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, U.S. forces led a coalition of NATO and Arab League partners in a campaign initially predicated on enforcing a no-fly zone and preventing massacres by the dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Frequent decapitation strikes failed to kill Gadhafi, but the self-styled “Brotherly Leader” suffered a brutal public death seven months later.
Gadhafi’s overthrow did unique harm to U.S. national security: It undermined the best model for a dictator disarming and beginning to come in from the cold.
After the country was once more thrown into civil war in 2014, Libyans today may finally have grounds for cautious optimism: A ceasefire has held for nearly five months and an interim transitional Presidential Council is charged with preparing for a free and transparent national election in December. But a few lessons stand out from the past decade of conflict in what was once Africa’s richest country.
To the Western leaders who decided to intervene on the side of the rebellion, Libya offered a tantalizing mirage: a wealthy Arab country with a small population, close to Europe and yearning to throw off the yoke of a brutal and bizarre dictator. Despite the disaster of the Iraq War and the bloody stalemate in Afghanistan, it was easy to embrace what the investor Sir John Templeton once termed the four most expensive words in the English language: “This time it’s different.”
Intervening in Libya was different from invading Iraq and Afghanistan, to be sure. U.S. concern for Libya was purely humanitarian and could not even be spun to serve a vital national interest. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates later conceded that “he [Gadhafi] was not a threat to us anywhere. He was a threat to his own people, and that was about it.”
Instead, Gadhafi’s overthrow did unique harm to U.S. national security: It undermined the best model for a dictator disarming and beginning to come in from the cold. One of the few foreign policy successes of the George W. Bush administration was Gadhafi’s nuclear disarmament. Driven by both a wish to end economic sanctions and a desire not to end up like the deposed Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi unveiled and dismantled his nuclear weapons program in late 2003.
Eight years later he was dead, with NATO warplanes tallying an assist. Other dictators from Pyongyang to Tehran are likely now far less willing to turn over their protective arsenals to a United States that will then happily hasten their demise.
Like Afghanistan and Iraq, Libya reverted to corruption and factionalism when the dictator and his security state were overthrown. Gadhafi had thoroughly hollowed out Libyan civil society, to a degree apparently unanticipated by most of the war’s fervent, idealistic backers in the West. A retreat to primary loyalties of home and bloodline followed Gadhafi’s deposal.
The consequences of Libya’s strife were not confined to the country’s populated coast. Casualty estimates for both civil wars vary wildly but are probably in the low tens of thousands. Libya became the site of actual slave markets and its route for migrants trying to reach Europe became a superhighway, roiling the continent’s politics.
Libya also became a proxy war, as the (recently repaired) Gulf Cooperation Council split led to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar backing opposing sides in Libya. Turkish-Egyptian antipathy also fueled the conflict, while Russia supplied mercenaries to the Libyan National Army.
Despite Obama’s purported realism, he chose not to ignore the entreaties of allies and the lure of humanitarian intervention and regime change in Libya. Though he won the 2008 election denouncing the invasion of Iraq, he was not chastened enough by America’s failures to resist the siren song of a crusade in Libya.
Obama ignored the famous (borrowed) admonition of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the “pottery barn rule” for military intervention: “You break it, you buy it.” America and NATO decided this need not apply to Libya, and limited their involvement after Gadhafi’s overthrow.
Obama eventually acknowledged that the Libyan catastrophe was his greatest failure in office — specifically the failure to plan for the aftermath. As he bluntly put it in 2016, according to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Libya was “a s--- show.”
The war’s few remaining defenders are right that we don’t know how the original Libyan civil war would have turned out absent Western intervention. Perhaps Gadhafi and the rebels would still be battling it out, with Libya more closely resembling the charnel house of Syria. Perhaps deeper NATO engagement could have prevented the second Libyan civil war, though the Western appetite to expend serious blood and treasure in Libya was nearly nonexistent.
But counterfactuals are only so useful. The Libya we actually ended up with is sundered and battered, with only the possibility of light at the end of the tunnel. The Libyan war was neither America’s most destructive post-9/11 campaign (that would be Iraq, by a mile) nor its most quixotic (Afghanistan).
But Libya, which posed no threat to America, is perhaps the United States’ most gratuitous recent intervention. Despite the vagaries of clime, place and culture, this anniversary of another American war should remind us that next time probably won’t be different.