Did Libya Prove War Hawks Right or Wrong?

The unintended consequences of military intervention are nearly impossible to predict.

The General National Congress, aflame, in the Libyan capital of Tripoli (Hani Amara/Reuters)

In August 2011, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a prominent advocate of U.S. intervention in Libya, claimed vindication in the article, "Why Libya Skeptics Were Proved Badly Wrong." Americans benefited by helping Libyans fight for the sorts of democratic principles we so often champion, she argued, showing Middle Easterners that we're willing to lend military help even when no oil is at stake. The road ahead in the country may prove difficult, she acknowledged, but no matter:

In a year, or a decade, Libya could disintegrate into tribal conflict or Islamist insurgency, or split apart or lurch from one strongman to another. But the question for those who opposed the intervention is whether any of those things is worse than Col Gaddafi staying on by increasingly brutal means for many more years. Instability and worse would follow when he died, even had he orchestrated a transition.

The sceptics must now admit that the real choice in Libya was between temporary stability and the illusion of control, or fluidity and the ability to influence events driven by much larger forces. Welcome to the tough choices of foreign policy in the 21st century. Libya proves the west can make those choices wisely after all.

That October, Senator John McCain said that the Obama administration "deserves great credit,” adding, “I had different ideas on the tactical side, but the world is a better place.” His quote was picked up by The New York Times in an article that stated, "For President Obama, the image of a bloodied Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi offers vindication, however harrowing, of his intervention in Libya ... with Colonel Qaddafi joining the lengthening list of tyrants and terrorists dispatched during the Obama presidency, even critics conceded a success for Mr. Obama’s approach to war—one that relies on collective, rather than unilateral, action; on surgical strikes rather than massive troop deployments."

Months later, in the April 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs, U.S. officials Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis published an even more celebratory endorsement of the campaign by the U.S. and its European allies. "By any measure, NATO succeeded in Libya," they wrote. "It saved tens of thousands of lives from almost certain destruction. It conducted an air campaign of unparalleled precision, which, although not perfect, greatly minimized collateral damage. It enabled the Libyan opposition to overthrow one of the world's longest-ruling dictators. And it accomplished all of this without a single allied casualty and at a cost–$1.1 billion for the U.S. and several billion dollars overall–that was a fraction of that spent on previous interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq."

Conventional wisdom in establishment foreign-policy circles was set. The skeptics were wrong. Libya was both a success as a discrete humanitarian intervention and a case study to apply to future liberal-internationalist interventions. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans forgot about the country.

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On November 1, 2011, Freddie deBoer, an anti-war socialist with no particular foreign-policy expertise or credentials, published a little-read blog post where he objected to various declarations that the war in Libya had ended successfully. "What actually matters–what has moral valence–is the material condition of the lives of the Libyan people," he wrote. "Nothing there is finished. Nothing is settled. To call it a democracy now would be an absurd act of projection. Many corrupt men are now freely operating in Libya, armed to the teeth and with a feeling of entitlement. Some of them want to execute homosexuals, oppress women, and adopt Islamic theocracy. Some want to ensure the ascension of their tribe or clan. Some just want to get their piece of the pie. There is neither security nor stability yet, and anyone who actually cares for the future of the Libyan people would admit that." He also questioned whether the U.S. government would ever truly act in the interests of the Libyan people. "We manipulated Libya when we backed Qaddafi as he ruthlessly murdered his people; we will do it [again] in Libya by backing whatever new military junta ossifies in the coming months," he predicted. "It would take a special combination of ignorance and obtuseness to believe we have no operatives in that country now. We have interests in Libya and so we are manipulating Libya, and we will trod on person, property, and democracy to do so if it suits our ends."

The intentions of American policymakers are beyond my knowledge. But the U.S. did have operatives in Libya. "Islamist militants armed with antiaircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades stormed a lightly defended United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya," The New York Times reported on September 12, 2012. " The attack, which killed the American ambassador and three staffers, would ultimately reveal that the CIA was running a secret mission out of Benghazi.

A few months earlier, Ross Douthat, a New York Times opinion writer with no particular expertise in foreign policy, dedicated his Sunday column to another unintended consequence of NATO intervention in Libya:

The worst-case situation has not come to pass in Libya itself. But thanks to the ripple effects from Colonel Qaddafi’s fall, it’s well on its way to happening in nearby Mali. Not much attention has been paid to these events. ... But northeastern Mali is part of the same Saharan region that encompasses southern Libya, which means weapons and fighters from the Libyan war have moved easily across Algeria into Mali since Colonel Qaddafi’s fall, transforming a long-simmering insurgency into a multifront civil war.

Mali’s insurgents are mostly Tuaregs, a Berber people whose homeland cuts across several national borders. This spring, their uprising won them effective control of the northern half of Mali, which they renamed Azawad. The central government’s weak response, meanwhile, led to a coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako,which replaced the civilian president with a junta that promised to take the fight to the rebels more effectively. That hasn’t happened; instead, the rebels have taken the fight to one another. The Tuareg insurgency included an Islamist element, known as Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), which is affiliated with a jihadi group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In the last month, Ansar Dine’s fighters have seized the breakaway region’s major cities, ousting their erstwhile allies and embarking on a Taliban-style campaign of vandalism against the region’s monuments.

He thought there was no chance of Western intervention in Mali. As it turned out, France sent troops there. The latest? "The U.N. Security Council on Monday welcomed agreement on a roadmap for negotiations between the Malian government and Tuareg separatists and called on both sides to engage in follow-up peace talks starting August 17," AP reports. "The talks between the Bamako-based government and Tuareg separatists are aimed at restoring stability in northern Mali, which fell under the control of al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists in 2012. A French-led military intervention scattered the extremists last year but new bursts of violence in recent months are posing a new threat to Mali's central government."

Today, Libya seems to be in even worse shape than Mali.

"A huge fuel depot in Libya's capital burned out of control on Monday, set ablaze in fighting between rival militias that has driven the country to chaos three years after the NATO-backed revolt that toppled Muammar Gaddafi," Reuters reports. "Combat over control of the nearby airport forced firefighters to withdraw, abandoning their attempts to extinguish the blaze ignited by a missile strike that hit millions of litres of fuel. Foreign governments have looked on powerless as anarchy sweeps across the North African oil producer. Western countries have urged their nationals to leave, shut their embassies and pulled diplomats out, after two weeks of clashes among rival factions of former rebels killed nearly 160 people."

The New York Times paints as dire a picture. "The country is coming undone. Relentless factional fighting in Tripoli and in the eastern city of Benghazi has left dozens of people dead. Well-known political activists have been killed, diplomats have been kidnapped, and ordinary citizens fear bandits on the roads," its latest article states. "Water and electricity shutdowns have become more frequent than at any time since the chaos after Colonel Qaddafi’s fall, and fuel has disappeared from Tripoli’s gas stations."

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I'm a skeptic of U.S. interventionism. There may well be cases where that instinct leads me astray. Perhaps the world would be a better place if Bill Clinton had attempted to stop the genocide in Rwanda, or pursued Osama bin Laden more zealously. But when Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose case for intervention in Libya strikes me as the most carefully qualified, argues that doing nothing would've resulted in certain awfulness–whereas doing something offered at least the chance of something better–it seems to me that the same logic could be used to defend mistaken U.S. interventions in Vietnam or Iraq, or any intervention in a country with a murderous dictator. Where is the limiting principle?

When Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis declare that the cost of intervening in Libya was "$1.1 billion for the U.S. and several billion dollars overall," I can't help but think that GiveWell estimates that one of the most efficient mosquito-net charities saves a life for every $3,400 that it spends. That's 882,352 lives saved for the cost of the Libya campaign. Given present conditions in Libya, how confident are we that the NATO-aided ouster of Qaddafi saved even half that many lives? Development aid is far from perfect, but my instinct is that it saves lives more reliably than wars of choice and virtually never results in violent blowback.

Most of all, I am struck by the willingness of prominent interventionists to have publicly declared their instincts in Libya vindicated when the country's future remained very much in doubt, as if they couldn't conceive of an intervention that would result in more lives lost than the alternative even as the possibility of that outcome was extremely plausible. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Washington, D.C. foreign-policy establishment seemed to perform no better at foreseeing how events would unfold than non-expert commentators who simply applied Murphy's Law. At the very most charitable, the common interventionist claim that Libya vindicated them in their dispute with non-interventionists was wildly premature. Perhaps the lesson to take from the NATO campaign is that even the most thoughtful interventionists have no idea how geopolitical events will unfold.