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Revisiting the Libyan War

Marc Lynch revisits [1] what academics said about the Arab uprisings as they were happening, and identifies what many got wrong. He addresses his support for intervention in Libya:

The Libya intervention is one of the very few military actions in the region that I have ever supported – and the results overwhelmingly suggest that I was wrong. I do not in any way regret my support for that intervention, which saved many thousands of lives and helped to bring an end to a brutal regime. Still, it is impossible to look at Libya’s failed state and civil war, its proxy conflict and regional destabilization, and not conclude that the intervention’s negative effects over the long term outweigh the short-term benefits. Moammar Gaddafi’s fall, combined with the prominence of armed militias, left Libya without a functioning state and little solid ground upon which to build a new political order. The likelihood of such an outcome should have weighed more heavily in my analysis.

Lynch is to be commended for reviewing his earlier claims and acknowledging his errors. There aren’t many supporters of the Libyan war or any other recent war that have done this much honest reevaluation of their earlier arguments. I don’t quite understand why he doesn’t regret his earlier position when he agrees that “the intervention’s negative effects over the long term outweigh the short-term benefits,” but that isn’t as important as recognizing the failure of the intervention. It should go without saying that a “humanitarian” intervention that causes more suffering and loss of life than it prevented has to be judged a failure. If the Libyan war is widely understood to have failed, perhaps that may make future administrations more reluctant to rush into the middle of a foreign civil war.

Lynch also reconsiders his original reasons for supporting the intervention and assesses how they stand up in retrospect:

The reasons for rethinking the intervention go beyond Libya itself. I had placed a great deal of emphasis on the demonstration effects of an intervention. My hope had been that the intervention would act to restrain other autocrats from unleashing deadly force against protesters and encourage wavering activists to push forward in their demands for change. Unfortunately, this only partially panned out and had unintended negative effects. U.S. cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council states in Libya compelled it to turn a blind eye to the simultaneous crushing of Bahrain’s uprising.

Frankly, the demonstration effect and deterring-dictators arguments [2] never made much sense [3], as I said [4] many times back in 2011 [5]. GCC countries were so enthusiastic for backing anti-regime forces in part because it allowed them to divert attention away from the crackdown in Bahrain. That was [3] obvious [6] from the very start of the Libyan war. No government that bordered on Libya wanted outside intervention, presumably because they feared that they would be adversely affected by it. The Arab governments that most wanted the war were the ones least likely to suffer from its ill effects. The fact that authoritarian GCC governments supported this “humanitarian” intervention should have been a reason to be very wary of military action instead of being an argument in its favor.

He continues:

The worst effects were on Syria. The Libya intervention may have imposed a certain level of caution on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading him to search for just the right level of repression to stay beneath the threshold for international action. But that didn’t last for long and his violence quickly escalated. Meanwhile, the Libya intervention almost certainly encouraged Syrian activists and rebels – and their backers in the Gulf and Turkey – in their hopes for a similar international campaign on their own behalf. That unintended moral hazard probably contributed to the escalation of Syria’s civil war.

Again, this was fairly clear at the time, and opponents of the Libyan intervention saw [7] it [8]. Intervention in Libya was always likely [9] to give protesters and rebels in other countries false hope that their plight would trigger outside intervention as well. The moral hazard may not have been intended, but it was there for all to see.

The point of reviewing all of this is to remind everyone that the arguments for intervention in Libya were extraordinarily weak and many of them were based on little more than wishful thinking, and opponents saw through all of them at the time. The next time that there is a crisis or a new conflict erupts, it would be wise to remember all of the far-fetched and unfounded arguments that interventionists made in the Libyan case and how thoroughly wrong they were about almost everything.

Update: On Twitter, Marc Lynch clarified [10] what he meant when he said he didn’t regret supporting the intervention.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Revisiting the Libyan War"

#1 Comment By philadelphilawyer On November 18, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

Lynch:

“I do not in any way regret my support for that intervention, which saved many thousands of lives and helped to bring an end to a brutal regime.”

Besides all of Mr Larison’s excellent points, one might add that the “humanitarian” case was always more or less a croc. Gaddafi never threatened to do anything more than hunt down armed rebels. Indeed, he specifically said that even current rebels who laid down their arms or fled the country had nothing to fear. And he had no track record for wholesale massacres. Thus, the notion that “thousands of lives” were saved is nonsense.

On the other hand, and this is something that is never mentioned, how many ordinary Libyan soldiers, conscripts, young men who felt like they were doing their duty, protecting their country from rebels backed by foreign powers, were killed in the march across the country made possible by the NATO airplane and missile supplied “creeping barrage?”

Not only are the USA and NATO generally responsible for the post war mess, the chaos, the anarchy, the score settling, the banditry, the rape, the racialist murders, and so on, but they are also responsible for all the death and destruction caused by the war itself. The rebellion had been nearly put down, with only one city of any consequence still holding out. Without NATO, the government would have won, and the war would have been over, without much further loss of life at all.

But the West could not stand for that. So it got a resolution passed at the UNSC based on the phony “humanitarian” concerns, and then it bent that resolution nine ways to Sunday to make it cover clear “regime change” actions. Killing who knows how many ordinary Libyan soldiers, and civilians too, in the process.

In addition, the charge of “brutal regime” rings hollow. Gaddafi’s regime, while no human rights model, was not particularly “brutal” by Arab, African or general Third World standards. The regime also did reasonably well in spreading out the oil money on spending for health care, education and housing. And Gaddafi drove a hard bargain with the oil companies (the real reason for the war?) to obtain the money to finance these programs.

The intervention was a disgrace, and shame on not only the USA and NATO, but on the Russians and Chinese for not vetoing the transparently fraudulent UNSC resolution that makes it legal. But even if it was legal, it still stinks to high heaven. A regime that was generally cooperative with the West, as well as more or less competent in context, was liquidated for nefarious reasons, all the while crocodile tears about “saving lives” were being shed by the aggressors. And was replaced with nothing but competing mobs, criminal gangs, thugs, religious extremists, and so on.

#2 Comment By Scott P. On November 18, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

I still fail to see what about intervention made a failed state _more_ likely. The implication is that absent our intervention, Qaddafi would have won, purged his enemies, and reestablished stability.

From a practical standpoint, that is unlikely. Qaddafi would only have won with the help of foreign fighters and would not have had the means to restrain them afterwards. Loyalist paramilitaries would have been needed to provide additional aid which would lead to reprisals and bloodshed. There is no way that outcome was likely.

From a moral point of view, I cannot comprehend the viewpoint that stability is the primary virtue of a state. Anything is preferable to a stable tyrannical state, and it seems like a substantial number of Libyans did feel that Qaddafi had become intolerable. They had the moral right to seek self-determination. Denying them that right would do them no favors.

#3 Comment By Jake Lukas On November 18, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

I don’t quite understand why he doesn’t regret his earlier position when he agrees that “the intervention’s negative effects over the long term outweigh the short-term benefits,” but that isn’t as important as recognizing the failure of the intervention.

I would surmise that he doesn’t regret the decision he made with the information he had available. In other words, if he knew then what he knows now he may have judged differently, but given only what he knew at the time he would have opted for intervention for fear that inaction would lead to greater loss of life.

One might be tempted to respond that he should have paid more attention to critics of intervention at the time. Even so that would be rather uncharitable to one who is now willing to acknowledge that other, better options were available. So long as he’s willing to give more careful consideration in the future, he should be counted a bigger man than most.

#4 Comment By John On November 18, 2014 @ 6:59 pm

@Scott P./5:44 p.m.:

We eliminated the single strongest player in Libyan politics and did nothing to empower a successor strong enough to subdue its competitors or make them seek a peaceful accord. How could the state of Libya not then fail?

#5 Comment By philadelphialawyer On November 18, 2014 @ 7:59 pm

Scott P:

“I still fail to see what about intervention made a failed state _more_ likely. The implication is that absent our intervention, Qaddafi would have won, purged his enemies, and reestablished stability. From a practical standpoint, that is unlikely. Qaddafi would only have won with the help of foreign fighters and would not have had the means to restrain them afterwards. Loyalist paramilitaries would have been needed to provide additional aid which would lead to reprisals and bloodshed. There is no way that outcome was likely.”

Um, nonsense. The whole notion of “foreign fighters” was overblown. It was the regular Libyan army which was well on its way to ending the minority backed, regional, religious fanatic controlled, phony “democratic,” Western intelligence fomented and financed rebellion. And re establishing stability. And, in any event, as per John’s comment, our actions ENSURED a failed State, while you are only speculating about what would have happened absent our intervention.

“From a moral point of view, I cannot comprehend the viewpoint that stability is the primary virtue of a state.”

Oddly enough, throughout human history, most folks have been not only able to comprehend what you cannot, but have made it quite clear that stability is essential.

Sure, the ideal might be democracy, political freedoms, and so on, but folks need to have the basic rule of law before any of that even matters. When bandits, self styled militias, gangs of common thieves, and the like run rampant, without the “stability” of a State to restrain them, ordinary people can’t live their lives except in fear and constant worry. A stable government, one that keeps thieves, highwaymen, extortionists, rapists and so on in check, is a God send to peasants, small shop keepers, herdsmen, and ordinary, regular people generally. It allows them to at least go about their daily business, to make a living and have family and religious lives, even if they don’t have self government. Without the State monopoly on violence and the stability it provides, such folks are at the mercy of any strong armed or armed man, or group of men, who can take anything they want and do anything they want.

From the dawn of civilization, through ancient and medieval times, and right up to the modern era, what was always considered the most important task of government, and what separated strong, and therefore good, governments from weak, and therefore bad, governments, was the ability to maintain order. It is only in the most recent centuries that more (ie democracy, human rights, constitutionalism, etc) was required. And, at that, only in the West, mostly. In the Third World, a government that can maintain order and provide stability is still seen as infinitely better than the chaos that takes its place.

“Anything is preferable to a stable tyrannical state…”

Wrong. See above.

“…and it seems like a substantial number of Libyans did feel that Qaddafi had become intolerable.”

Define “substantial.” Some Libyans did, some didn’t. Why should the former group be privileged? And, in any event, what makes you think they had anything in mind other than replacing one “tyranny” with another, namely, their own?

“They had the moral right to seek self-determination.”

Indeed, they did. They had every moral right to make a revolution. I fail to see why or how they had some sort of “right,” to be enforced by the UN, to succeed, however.

“Denying them that right would do them no favors.”

Who said that they should have been denied their right to seek self determination? We are not talking about aiding Gaddafi in putting down the rebellion, merely not taking sides.

I find every single thing you wrote to be completely unpersuasive.

#6 Comment By cecelia On November 19, 2014 @ 2:14 am

the absence of a strong government in Lybia has also resulted in parts of Lybia being used as a base for IS. They appear to have taken over a city – Darna – and imposed all the usual sharia law, terror etc. I think we should not ignore the role of the French and Brits in this – they were all hot for an intervention and apparently persuaded a reluctant Obama. Do recall the US withdrew most of its support after two weeks – but had to return because of the inadequacies of the Europeans.

It seems to me that we completely misinterpreted what the Arab Spring meant – thanks to the usual clueless pundits. It was portrayed as a democratic awakening throwing off the despots – no consideration for the fact that the despots kept the radical types under control.

We should remember this as we try to unseat Putin – who knows what might replace him.

#7 Comment By simon94022 On November 19, 2014 @ 10:02 am

Besides all of Mr Larison’s excellent points, one might add that the “humanitarian” case was always more or less a croc. Gaddafi never threatened to do anything more than hunt down armed rebels.

Exactly. Thank you, philadelphilawyer.

At no point was there any threat of “genocide” against the rebel-held areas in Libya. That claim was an invention of the U.S. government, made up to justify a military intervention which otherwise could not be justified.

I hope people remember this in two years when pundits are praising Mrs. Clinton for being a sober, seasoned foreign policy expert.

#8 Comment By simon94022 On November 19, 2014 @ 10:14 am

Let’s also not forget the wonderful message our Libyan War sent to leaders of North Korea, Iran, and all the other dangerous or supposedly dangerous regimes around the world:

If you negotiate a deal with the United States and abandon your nuclear weapons program, you will be overthrown and killed like Qaddafi.

#9 Comment By CJ On November 19, 2014 @ 10:48 am

Well done, philadelphialawyer.

#10 Comment By Brian M On November 19, 2014 @ 5:09 pm

Yes, Philadelphia lawyer. I cannot honestly comprehend Phillip’s arguments.

By his standards, Congo (ex Zaire) must be paradise on earth.