Revisiting the Libyan War
Marc Lynch revisits 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 never made much sense, as I said many times back in 2011. 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 obvious 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.
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 it. Intervention in Libya was always likely 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 what he meant when he said he didn’t regret supporting the intervention.