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Of Course the Libyan War Was a Failure

Shadi Hamid writes [1] another defense of the Libyan war:

Critics erroneously compare Libya today to any number of false ideals, but this is not the correct way to evaluate the success or failure of the intervention. To do that, we should compare Libya today to what Libya would have looked like if we hadn’t intervened. By that standard, the Libya intervention was successful: The country is better off today than it would have been had the international community allowed dictator Muammar Qaddafi to continue his rampage across the country.

Interventionists always assume that a country is better off because of outside intervention than it would be without it, but I’m not sure why anyone not already committed to believing that would agree. It is possible that Libya would be worse off had the U.S. and NATO not hastened the collapse of the regime, but it’s hard to see why this was the most likely outcome. The U.S. and its allies intervened because Gaddafi appeared to be on the verge of crushing the rebellion and reestablishing some measure of control over the entire country. If that’s the case, the intervention prolonged and intensified the conflict by bolstering the weaker side in a civil war. By going far beyond the U.N. mandate and aiding in the overthrow of the old regime, the intervention produced a worse, more chaotic outcome.

Even if the intervention had some benefits (and it is difficult to identify what those might be), the costs to Libya and surrounding countries have been much greater and were always likely to be so. Libya might still be suffering from armed conflict had there been no intervention, but at the time supporters of the war worried about just the opposite. They feared that Gaddafi would succeed in ending the conflict by crushing his opposition. It has only been in later years that supporters of the war have started claiming that they were concerned about a drawn-out conflict. “Libya would look like Syria!” they say, but one of their talking points in 2011 was that the intervention was necessary to deter other dictators from crushing their opposition with violence. Obviously, it failed to do that, too, but the relevant point here is that Libyan war supporters are engaging in revisionism to defend a failed policy.

Hamid claims that critics of the intervention “further assert that the intervention caused, created, or somehow led to civil war.” That is not what critics of the Libyan war say. Opponents of the Libyan war then and later argued that outside intervention tends to make a civil war last longer and makes the conflict more destructive. Events in Libya would seem to support that argument.

The main problem with Hamid’s defenses of the Libyan war is that he wants the policy to be judged on the intentions and rhetoric of its supporters and not on the results of the war. Interventionists always want their preferred policies judged this way, because they think it frees them of any responsibility for the effects of the wars they support. But just because they don’t want to accept responsibility for helping to wreck a country and harm its surrounding region doesn’t mean that the intervention didn’t contribute significantly to these things. He takes it for granted that the war was justified, and then insists that its justness can’t be negated by subsequent events, but critics of the intervention have denied that the war was justified precisely because it was always likely to cause more harm than it prevented. The last five years have provided ample evidence that the war has done far more harm than it prevented, and by the same standard that interventionists use to defend the war–protecting civilians–it has clearly been a failure.

Hamid faults “the international community’s failures after intervention,” but this requires us to forget that one of the main selling points of the Libyan war was that the U.S. and its allies would not be obliged to carry out a long-term stabilization mission after the regime was defeated. None of the governments involved in attacking the old regime wanted the responsibility for stabilizing Libya after the war, and the interim Libyan government claimed not to want their help. The lack of post-intervention follow-up was baked into the case for intervention and it was one of the things that made the intervention politically viable in the U.S. and Britain. Supporters of the war said that the U.S. and its allies wouldn’t be caught in another costly, open-ended military mission. Supporters promised that the Libyan war would be both cheap and low-risk for the intervening governments, and so it was, and meanwhile the costs of the war were borne by the people in Libya, Mali, and elsewhere. It was certain that the intervening governments weren’t going to do much of anything for Libya once Gaddafi was gone, and that was made clear many times during the eight-month bombing campaign. So one cannot separate the “international community’s failures after intervention” from the intervention, because the latter was wrongly sold to the public on the assumption that no follow-up would be required.

The Libyan war for regime change has produced predictable and predicted results: it has destabilized neighboring countries, empowered jihadists, and left the country it was meant to help in chaos under the control of armed gangs. Toppling the old regime contributed to the refugee crisis that the war’s supporters said would happen if there were no intervention. Back in 2011, supporters warned about the creation of a Somalia on the Mediterranean, and then proceeded to guarantee that result. The Libyan war failed in everything except regime change, which its supporters originally pretended was not the goal of the intervention. Then when the regime was overthrown, they claimed that the intervention had “worked” by achieving something it supposedly wasn’t trying to do. The war not only failed on its own terms, but it also clearly did nothing to make any of Libya’s neighbors more secure. On the contrary, the war has made the region less stable and secure than it was before the intervention. It’s good that the failure of the Libyan war is being more widely acknowledged today, but it’s a shame that it took five years and the enormous harm done to Libya and its neighbors for most people to recognize what the war’s opponents saw from the beginning.

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11 Comments To "Of Course the Libyan War Was a Failure"

#1 Comment By Kieselguhr Kid On April 5, 2016 @ 1:18 pm

I don’t imagine Mr. Larison is particularly fond of R2P, but I am, and so at least from my perspective another grave cost of the Libyan war is that it made a mockery of R2P, basically removing it as a credible part of the international toolkit: the coalition justified the intervention publicly on R2P grounds and promptly set about targeting the regime instead.

#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On April 5, 2016 @ 1:29 pm

In fact, I have criticized Libyan war supporters’ abuse of R2P many times for just that reason.






#3 Comment By Fahad Alkhater On April 5, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

Brilliant work! The abuse of R2P hasn’t just destabilized Libya, it has also discredited the United States, and seriously undermined the U.N as a body that could resolve conflicts multilaterally. There is no chance that future resolutions that violate the sovereignty of states will be abstained from by Russia or China.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 5, 2016 @ 3:03 pm

““Libya would look like Syria!”

Ah, and intervention there has been but a paradise.

Clearly, just the opposite is the case. Th rebellion’s would have been defeated and ordered restored. As counterfactuals go, their endgame argument has thus far bolstered the opposite result.

#5 Comment By Chris Chuba On April 5, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

Where are these people coming from?

The justification for failure is always that it was better than some untestable alternative. This is a favorite line of HRC.
1. Our intervention in Libya made things better than what would have happened.
2. Earlier intervention WOULD HAVE turned Syria into the Garden of Eden.

These theories are conveniently impossible to test because they are only assertions.

I know, let’s talk to Mr. Peabody and enter the WABAC machine and dial in, ‘Libya without NATO intervention’. Oh that we could.

If I hear this assertion made about the Saudi destruction of Yemen, I might turn psychotic. ‘Imagine how bad it would have been if the Saudi’s didn’t starve the Yemenis, it would have so been much worse.’

#6 Comment By john On April 6, 2016 @ 12:55 am

How much did Libya cost us with the Russians? How much precious “credibility” did we lose? It sure looks like we flat out lied to them about our intentions.

#7 Comment By Observer On April 6, 2016 @ 3:26 am

There is no chance that future resolutions that violate the sovereignty of states will be abstained from by Russia or China.

If it restores Westphalian sovereignty to the world, then it might actually be a blessing in disguise. Gadhafi can be regarded as a human sacrifice.

Imagine how upset we would be if the Chinese assassinated the King of Saudi Arabia. That’s what we did to the Chinese when we killed Gadhafi.

Libya was a major oil supplier for China. The Chinese state oil company had 30,000 personnel in Libya!

#8 Comment By Graham Askey On April 6, 2016 @ 11:52 am

You fail to point out a number of key facts: the West armed Islamic extremists from the earliest days of the demonstrations, helping to precipitate the civil war; those Islamic extremists went on to massacre hundreds or more black Africans, with not a single mention of R2P from the West; the threat of a massacre in Benghazi by the Ghadaffi regime was simply propaganda created by the rebels and well known to western leaders; the large civilian death toll and deliberate detruction of infrastructure/water supplies etc – so much for the R2P again; Clinton refused Ghadaffi’s offer of unconditional surrender which would have allowed a more stable transition and puts a lie to the fact that the intervention was not about regime change. In terms of what the backers of the war wanted it was not a failure at all, it did exactly what they expected, you’d have to be a complete idiot to imagine that it would not end in chaos. It is we who deliberately introduced Islamic extremisim into Libya. Ghadaffi for all his faults was totally effective at suppressing such extremisim

#9 Comment By Brad Smith On April 7, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

First of all, the intervention started Before the civil war broke out and would not have happened without our meddling. The plan from the start was to use the Arab Spring to overthrow the anti-Imperialist Qaddafi. The idea of R2P was a smokescreen from day one. This was always about regime change and had Zero to do with R2P.

One more thing to keep in mind and this is very important. We actually sent a firm message to the dictators of the world. Never under any circumstances should you give you your WMD’s and play footsie with the West. They will stab you in the backside every time. In this case literally.

This regime change operation not only make a joke of R2P it also squashed hopes of diplomatic efforts to end proliferation of WMD’s. I am 100% sure that Assad only gave his up after Russia Promised to protect Syria, if it looked like the government would fall. What did this show the world? It showed them that Russia can be trusted more than the US. How on Earth did we ever allow this flip flop to take place?

How did we become the bad guys; especially after 9/11 when we had the world on our side? It’s my opinion that this is the neo-con influence in both parties. Those clowns seriously need to be run out of Washington on a rail. Tar and Feather them first!

#10 Comment By KA On April 8, 2016 @ 1:03 am

“If Iraq had quickly turned out “well” and become a relatively stable, flawed, yet functioning democracy, would that have retroactively justified an unjustified war? Presumably not, even though we would all be happy that Iraq was on a promising path.”Hamid in original article

Coming from Brookings ,he carries the template of Brookings mindset all the time .
I am not clear what he is trying to articulate here . Should we be all happy if Iraq war turned out well? Well for who?
Bush jr won the election and neocon continued the same war path . It was good for them .It didn’t turn out good for Iraqis .
First Gulf war was based on lies . That turned out OK for defense,Pentagon,military and for businesses but not for Iraqis and Bush Sr did not make the political profit.

Then can something turn out well when engineered and carried by dishonest unpatriotic violent arrogant people ? Has it ever happened ? No .it doesn’t . The same people who orchestrated Iraq war also been involved in planning of post war Iraq . The same people have been urging wars against Syria Libya Iran and Somalia .
So this attempt to create a hypothetical possibility by Brookings or Hamid is nothing but another attempt to get to the same demagoguery that led to Iraq war and involvement in other disastrous wars .

May be the whole convoluted argument of Brookings/ Hamid can be answered in one sentence- Would we all be happy if the baby after being pushed down from 10 th floor ,instead of crashing and splutterring his brain out on the concrete managed to walk up in the air on the 11 th floor .

#11 Comment By David Smith On April 8, 2016 @ 7:10 pm

What these interventions have done is create disorder, and out of disorder arise all of the social pathologies that were contained when the area was under firm control. Saddam and Gaddafi may not have been models of Jeffersonian democracy, but they kept the lid on and allowed people to go about their daily lives without the fear of being blown up in a marketplace. Disorder is not freedom; chaos is not liberty. You can’t break something and expect the pieces to reassemble themselves magically into something better.