2011 Libyan Intervention: Drawing Conclusions Today

By Mark Pomerleau
Mark Pomerleau
Mark Pomerleau
My name is Mark Pomerleau. I am originally from the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts but I am currently located in Washington DC. I received a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Westfield State University. I am a freelance journalist in Washington covering politics and policy. I run and operate my own political blog, which can be found at redandbluepolitics.com in addition to being a contributor for The Hill.
July 31, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

U.S. diplomats’ return to Libya could be more hazardous than exit.”  This startling statement was also the title of a recent article in Reuters, which astutely articulated the grave concerns and potential political backlash of returning American diplomats to Libya.  Last weekend, the United States embassy in Tripoli was evacuated due to concerns of the growing violence and instability ravaging the nation after its civil war.  The Reuters report stated, “U.S. diplomats work in dangerous places such as Baghdad and Kabul, but the ghosts of Benghazi hang over the U.S. presence in Libya after an attack on a U.S. mission in the eastern Libyan city in 2012 that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.”

The political fallout from the incident in Benghazi has been relentless and many are still dissatisfied with the answers the administration has provided.  Several politicians have been quick to lay more blame on the current administration for their inaction, which has been described as a catalyst to an unruly and insecure world – the Tripoli embassy evacuation and deteriorating security situation in Libya included.  Rather than focus on recent unrest in Libya, it is important to go back to the initial NATO intervention that toppled the Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi in 2011 and examine what exactly occurred.  As Robin Wright of the Wilson Center, correctly noted a report by Reuters, “all NATO countries, not just the United States, had ‘increasingly abandoned Libya over the past three years.'”

According to a report published by RAND, there were several reasons for this abandonment.  The heavy air strategy adopted by NATO forces in Libya “greatly reduced the extent of control and influence that NATO and its partners could exert after Qaddafi was gone.”  The only ground forces were limited to a small deployment of special operations forces, none of which were from the United States.  RAND also pointed to the reduced role of the United States in combat operations, which directly correlated to a reduced role post-conflict.

The role of the United States in the Libyan NATO intervention during the 2011 campaign should not be discounted, however.  Many sources and experts attribute U.S. efforts to the overall victory of NATO forces as the United States took the initial role in “Operation Odyssey Dawn,” the name of the U.S. role in the NATO Libyan intervention.  President Obama, and the nation, were weary of nation building and war.  The New York Times quoted President Obama during the time who said, “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq…regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”  The Times went on to say, “The president said he was willing to act unilaterally to defend the nation and its core interests. But in other cases, he said, when the safety of Americans is not directly threatened but where action can be justified — in the case of genocide, humanitarian relief, regional security or economic interests — the United States should not act alone.”

The United States supplied 97 percent of Tomahawk missile strikes during the Libyan campaign as well as essential intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) support, which indicates the U.S. role was pivotal.  The president deployed military support under the War Powers Act, separate from a Congressional authorization, and asserted the United States was operating on United Nations Resolutions and international humanitarian intervention principles such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which allows other nations to violate the sovereignty of a country where violations of human rights are occurring and the host government is not capable or willing to stop them. The United States military operations in Libya were designed from the beginning to be limited in scope, while the British and French took the lead.

The Libyan action by NATO forces was seen as a model intervention operation.  From a U.S. standpoint, a tyrannical dictator was ousted and not a single American life was lost.  In terms of an overall effort, an article in Foreign Affairs described the intervention as “a model intervention. The alliance responded rapidly to a deteriorating situation that threatened hundreds of thousands of civilians rebelling against an oppressive regime. It succeeded in protecting those civilians and, ultimately, in providing the time and space necessary for local forces to overthrow Muammar [Qaddafi]. And it did so by involving partners in the region and sharing the burden among the alliance’s members.”  Many second this notion as a quick response to a rapidly deteriorating situation.

However, others suggest that the NATO model in Libya should not be used as a template for future interventions as then-UN Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggested in an interview.  Rather, as Alan J. Kuperman, Associate Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin wrote, “A more rigorous assessment, however, reveals that NATO’s intervention backfired: it increased the duration of Libya’s civil war by about six times and its death toll by at least seven times, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors.”  Professor Kuperman asserted that Col. Qaddafi was simply repressing violent protests against his government and he was about to stand down from using violent methods before NATO intervened.  “Further evidence that Qaddafi avoided targeting civilians comes from the Libyan city that was most consumed by the early fighting,” Professor Kuperman stated.  Furthermore, Professor Kuperman described the NATO intervention as a failure because Qaddafi had already regained control of territories and the NATO intervention allowed the rebellion to continue and escalate.

The RAND report expanded on Professor Kuperman’s sentiment that “NATO was exceeding the mandate approved in [UN Security Council] Resolution 1973 and had crossed the line between civilian protection and regime change. The resolution only provided for limited strikes to prevent violence against innocent civilians, they argued, but NATO was now actively seeking to overthrow Qaddafi.”

Intervention should never be taken lightly.  The R2P should not be a green light to incite immediate intervention in all instances.  The iconic Pottery Barn rule famously orated by Bush administration Secretary of State Colin Powell – “you break it, you own it” – rings true.  While the NATO allies were successful in dispelling a dictator, his ouster may not have been fully warranted.  Furthermore, the allied powers appeared to not have given as much attention to Libya after their intervention as they should or could have.  NATO even stated after the operation concluded, “the Alliance stands ready to assist Libya in areas where it could provide added value, such as in the area of defence [sic] and security sector reforms, if requested to do so by the new Libyan authorities.”

All those who contributed to the intervention bear some responsibility for the failed state of Libya currently, though, the United States’ role was debatably less involved than its European allies.  The U.S. weariness of nation building should have then and should in the future continue to shape its foreign policy, though indigenous forces bear the majority of responsibility for shaping their own future.  Ms. Wright was correct to assert that NATO abandoned Libya.  It is important to point out that the death of American Ambassador Chris Stevens signified the importance the United States (and Ambassador Stevens) placed on diplomacy and aid to the rebuilding of the central Libyan government.  Intervention is an immensely influential decision with potentially long impacts.  The NATO intervention in Libya should be used as a lesson for pre- and post-involvement in international conflicts.

My name is Mark Pomerleau. I am originally from the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts but I am currently located in Washington DC. I received a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Westfield State University. I am a freelance journalist in Washington covering politics and policy. I run and operate my own political blog, which can be found at redandbluepolitics.com in addition to being a contributor for The Hill.