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Of Course the Libyan War Was a Failure

The Libyan war failed in everything except regime change, which its supporters originally pretended was not the goal of the intervention.
libya rebels

Shadi Hamid writes 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.