We reluctantly joined France and Britain to depose Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. We were “leading from behind,” as President Obama put it, a phrase that would lead hawks to gleefully hit the playback button thousands of times over the next few years. But rather than lead from behind, we should have been talking our allies out of intervening in the first place.
It has become fairly commonplace in recent months for Westerners to observe that the U.S./NATO Libyan war contributed greatly to the ruin of that country, but it’s worth remembering just how arrogant and triumphalist its supporters were in the immediate aftermath of Gaddafi’s overthrow and death. Libyan war supporters could not contain their enthusiasm to lecture opponents of the war about how wrong they had been in those early days following Gaddafi’s demise, which only confirmed how oblivious they were to the harm they had done. As we can all see now, the Libya hawks were extremely premature in their celebrations, and they have been desperately trying to evade any responsibility for the suffering they helped to cause ever since.
Libya hawks have since claimed that the intervention was not to blame for the chaos that followed regime change, but that it was rather the “failure” to stabilize the country afterward. This is a bit like an arsonist pleading innocence because a fire truck didn’t arrive in time to save the building he set on fire. It also ignores the fact that interventionists in the spring of 2011 insisted that no such stabilization effort would be needed, and that Libya would be nothing like Iraq. Except for the unnecessary war, regime change, and ensuing chaos, they were right that it was not like Iraq. It was its own special kind of foreign policy disaster, and its supporters wrapped it all up in self-righteous rhetoric about the “responsibility to protect” at the same time that they blatantly ignored the requirements of the doctrine they claimed to be upholding. Libya was a “model” intervention, they told us, and it has indeed become a perfect example of what outside governments should not do when faced with another country’s internal conflict.
Since very few people in the West care about the Libyan war or its aftermath, and because there is never any accountability for foreign policy disasters in this or any other Western country, the supporters of this disgraceful and unnecessary war have faced no backlash or even much serious criticism. The victims of their hubris were almost all from countries in Africa, and so the Libya hawks face even less scrutiny in the West than the Iraq war hawks did. In order for our politicians and policymakers to be held accountable for their failures of judgment, it seems to be necessary that those failures cost the lives of people from our own countries in large numbers, and even then there isn’t much in the way of accountability. In the absence of that, the policy failure may as well never have happened. That, too, is a disgrace, since it makes it much more likely that the the U.S. will rush in the next time there is a reckless demand to “do something” in some foreign conflict.
Purple mentions the assessment that Libya is turning into a “Somalia on the Mediterranean,” so it seems worth recalling that at least some opponents of the war were warning about this soon after the intervention had ended. I wrote this in January 2012:
No one wanted the responsibility to rebuild then, and no one is going to want it in the future. Interventionists worried that there might be a Somalia on the Mediterranean, and then proceeded to bring about that outcome.
Already there are new calls for further Western intervention to try to salvage something from the wreckage that the last intervention helped cause. If the U.S. and its allies have any ability to learn from their past errors, they will refuse to participate in another Libyan war.