Obama and Libya

February 20, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

As the saying goes, hindsight is always 20/20, and it cannot be overstated when examining the situation in Libya today.  When looking back from the initial domestic uprising, the NATO intervention, and its morphing into today’s Islamist haven, it is easy to criticize the way the situation was handled by the U.S. and NATO.

Notwithstanding perfectly legitimate criticisms, why is it that the intervention back then was lauded as “ideal” and yet today that characterization could not be farther from the truth?  President Obama maintained in an interview with the New York Times that the situation in Libya is one he wants back saying “[s]o that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?,'” (emphasis mine).  One way to look at the handling of the Libyan intervention is that it exemplified exactly the type of foreign policy President Obama was elected to pursue – one of limited proportions opposite those of his predecessor.

President Obama’s defining characteristic, which separated him from the frontrunners in the Democratic field and eventually led to his nomination, was his incessant opposition to the Iraq War and the fact that he did not vote for it (though to be fair, he was not in Congress at that time and thus gets off a little easier).  President Obama wanted to put a stop to “dumb wars,” end current wars, and refrain from “nation building.”

This limited, “small-footprint” foreign policy model has defined the president’s strategies as exemplified by his heavy reliance on drones for counterterrorism.  In Libya, NATO partners Britain and France took the lead on the international intervention while the U.S. supplied Tomahawk missiles and aerial support.  In the end, “ruthless” dictator Moammar Qaddafi was ousted with limited U.S. intervention – thought to be a true success story for American foreign policy after nearly a decade of billions spent in two wars and nation building.  President Obama let his fear of nation building drive many decisions as he did not want to begin new ventures.  “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 president said during the Libyan intervention. This fear contributed to the utter abandonment of Libya by the U.S. and NATO partners.  With no concrete rebuilding plan, Islamists and militias filled the security vacuum.

Another key metric of President Obama’s foreign policy is humanitarianism.  Humanitarianism dragged him into Libya. “President Obama was reluctant to get involved [in Libya], and his aides argued about the wisdom of forcing Qaddafi from power…[Ben] Rhodes was one of the aides who, along with [Hillary] Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, helped persuade Obama to join the intervention,”  wrote Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker.  Reassured by the readiness and willingness of allies to intervene and take the lead, President Obama, then waded into the intervention in a “lead from behind” capacity.   “We saved a lot of lives in Benghazi and the rest of the country…If Qaddafi had gone into Benghazi, I think Libya would look more like Syria today…What did we do wrong? Even the President would acknowledge that it’s been extremely difficult to fill the vacuum in Libya,” said Rhodes.  Team Obama has been stacked with pro-humanitarian advocates who have the president’s ear when it comes to foreign policy.  Humanitarianism is what first dragged the president back into the region after concluding the Iraq War and winding down the War in Afghanistan when he authorized strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq to save marooned Yazidis on Mount Sinjar.

It can also be inferred in today’s deteriorating security situation that President Obama is still fearful of nation building endeavors, which has contributed to confusion regarding his policy toward the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.  The president is still reluctant to introduce ground troops and has remained committed to an air campaign that supplements indigenous ground troops the U.S. will assist with training and weapons.

Considering almost 15 years of war, nation building and intervention, it is easy to see why President Obama acted the way he did in Libya.  Though, the decision to intervene there at all is still hotly debated as many believe the charges of human rights abuses against woman and children and the rapidly deteriorating security situation in 2011 were overstated.  For those who were tired of lengthy foreign intervention crusades based on cagy precepts, President Obama’s light-footprint model seemed like a godsend (as a quick aside, some contend that the U.S. intervention in Libya was illegal as it was not authorized explicitly by Congress).  What began as a humanitarian mission in Libya turned into regime change and it is clear that any regime change must be accompanied by a long term goal with high levels of investment.  It is easy to see now why the president’s model of intervention in Libya failed but at the time, many believed it should be the model.