Libya and the Perils of Regime Change

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Libya Transitional  National Council President Mustafa Abdel-Jalil
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Libya Transitional National Council President Mustafa Abdel-Jalil at the World Islamic Call Society Headquarters during a visit to Tripoli in Libya Tuesday Oct. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque, Pool)

The 2011 intervention in Libya was praised at the time as the right way to take military action against a repressive regime. The anti-Qaddafi effort was a true coalition effort, with European allies taking the initial lead in the bombing campaign, and with political support from the Arab League. And the overthrow of the regime was accomplished without putting U.S. troops in harm's way.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a strong advocate of going to war who tipped the balance within the administration towards intervention, was in a celebratory mood in the wake of the coalition victory. As noted in a New York Times piece that was published on Sunday of this week, Clinton's response to the overthrow of Qaddafi was short and simple: "We came. We saw. He died."

Five years later, things look very different. But it's too late to put the corks back in the champagne bottles.

The Libya intervention is a case study in the perils of regime change. What began as a limited air campaign designed to keep Qaddafi's forces from carrying out threats of a bloodbath in Benghazi soon morphed into a successful effort to overthrow him.

The Obama administration didn't take the decision to launch yet another war in the region lightly. According to his then national security adviser Anthony Blinken, Vice President Biden raised concerns about what would happen "not the day after, but the decade after" the intervention. He was mindful of what happened in the wake of the war in Iraq, and didn't want to see a repeat in North Africa.

The Bush administration's intervention in Iraq, which proceeded with the support of a number of key Democrats, including then senator Hillary Clinton, resulted in the installation of a corrupt, sectarian regime that was so brutal in its treatment of its Sunni population that many communities feared the government more than they feared ISIS. And the roots of ISIS itself are in Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was formed in response to the U.S. intervention.

Libya was supposed to be a different kind of intervention, with a much lighter footprint, more enthusiastic international support, and a realistic hope for the establishment of a secular democratic regime in the wake of the conflict. The results have been different from what happened in Iraq, but they have not necessarily been any better. The situation in Libya has degenerated into a multi-sided civil war. Qaddafi's ample stores of weapons have been raided, with many of them ending up in the hands of terrorist groups that operate in neighboring Mali and elsewhere in North Africa. And ISIS has seized territory in northern Libya, on the Mediterranean coast, that it can use as a new base of operations. In short, the worst fears of opponents of intervening in Libya have come to pass.

The question now is whether political and military leaders will learn the lessons from Libya that many did not learn from the intervention in Iraq: it is not possible to impose democracy by force, and interventions justified on humanitarian grounds can quickly escalate, causing more harm than good.

When Rand Paul was an active candidate denouncing foreign intervention and Donald Trump was repeatedly describing the intervention in Iraq as a "disaster," it seemed for a moment that there might be as much debate over the wisdom of a policy of regime change among Republican candidates as there was on the Democratic side. But that trend has faded now that Paul has withdrawn from the race. In addition, Trump doesn't have Jeb Bush to kick around any more, so he has less incentive to rant on about how Jeb's brother George's invasion of Iraq was a fiasco. In addition, informed observers like James Fallows have noted that there is no evidence that Trump was the early opponent of the Iraq war that he has claimed to be.

On the democratic side, Bernie Sanders has roundly criticized Hillary Clinton for poor judgment in her vote in favor of the Iraq war. Clinton has attempted to absolve herself of responsibility by saying she now knows that the vote was a "mistake" and that she had been misled by President Bush. But she has made no change of course regarding the wisdom of her strong support for military action in Libya.

The real question is what the candidates are likely to do going forward. In Syria, Clinton supports the creation of a no fly zone, while Sanders does not. The questions of how a no-fly zone would be implemented, what kind of military commitment it might entail, and how it would be possible to avoid escalation have yet to be adequately answered. It should not be forgotten that the Libya intervention began as an effort to impose a no-fly zone.

In the remaining debates, candidates in both parties should be asked to give detailed explanations of their positions on intervention in Syria and Libya. These issues are too important to be relegated to sound bites, or left until after the November election.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.