While reading Greg Scoblete’s response to Slaughter’s piece on Syria, I was reminded of another part of Slaughter’s argument that I wanted to address. She writes:

As a cautionary tale, Kissinger and others point not only to Iraq but also to Libya. Kissinger lumped Libya in with Yemen, Somalia and northern Mali as a “blank space” on the map “denoting lawlessness.”

I’ll grant that it was an exaggeration to refer to Libya as a “blank space,” but it is not as much of a stretch to say that post-war Libya has a problem with lawlessness. The national government doesn’t have a monopoly on the use of force, and it has limited authority in much of the country. Some parts of the country have seen repeated armed clashes between neighboring communities that have caused dozens of casualties, and attempts by the national government to impose order have led to additional clashes between the army and local forces. Other parts are governed by local militias and are effectively out of the national government’s control. Advocates for intervention in Syria would do well to stop drawing attention to conditions in post-war Libya, because these conditions do not give anyone confidence that it would be wise to attempt something similar in Syria.

Remarkably, Slaughter mentions northern Mali as one of the other poorly-governed areas on Kissinger’s list, but doesn’t address the role that the Libyan intervention had in fueling the conflict there. The success of the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali is one of the principal examples of the Libyan war’s destabilizing effects on the surrounding region. That is the cautionary tale from the aftermath of the Libyan war, and Slaughter has nothing to say about it.

She skirts around the problem that regime change was always the goal of the Libyan intervention:

Kissinger is right that in the end NATO’s operations in Libya looked like an effort to remove Moammar Gaddafi from office, not because NATO planes took out command-and-control facilities in Tripoli from which Gaddafi and his generals were ordering civilian massacres but because NATO planes never sought to protect civilians supporting the regime against opposition troops. The response to this concern, however, is not to oppose intervention in Syria but to support a U.N. Security Council resolution with clear parameters about a limited use of force.

As Scoblete says, this didn’t just “look like” an effort to topple Gaddafi. That is what it was. UNSCR 1973 authorized the use of force for the protection of civilians, which should have theoretically applied to civilians on both sides of the conflict. As the inhabitants of Sirte and elsewhere found out, it didn’t mean that in practice. In retrospect, it is difficult to see how it could have applied to both sides. The U.S. and NATO maintained the fiction throughout the war that they were merely implementing the terms of the resolution, but of course those terms were subject to interpretation, and the U.S. and allied governments chose to interpret them as approval for helping one side to win a civil war. It was implausible that that these governments would become entangled in Libya’s conflict without having Gaddafi’s defeat and overthrow as their goal. It is misleading or naive at this point to suggest that an intervention in Syria could be designed that would not be directly aimed at toppling Assad and his regime.