Was The 2011 Libya Intervention A Mistake?

A Libyan waves the national flag during commemorations to mark the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted Moammar G
A Libyan waves the national flag during commemorations to mark the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted Moammar Gadhafi in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Feb, 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Ivo Daalder on the 2011 Libyan intervention and what has changed since.

As popular uprisings against autocratic leaders swept across the Arab world in 2011, Libyans, too, took to the streets demanding change. Longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had little patience for dissent, however, and infamously vowed to "cleanse Libya house by house."

In response to Gaddafi's violent threats, in particular those against the coastal city of Benghazi, an international coalition led by NATO argued it was its responsibility to protect Libyan civilians. The coalition installed a no-fly zone over Libya and bombed Gaddafi's military positions.

The mission was met with significant criticism from its inception. While the coalition operated under United Nations Security Council approval, some countries, including members of the council, argued that the campaign was overstepping its mandate of protection and was aiming for regime change. Months after the revolution began, as Gaddafi had been deposed and killed and a transitionary government was being formed, NATO declared its mission was done.

Almost four years later, Libya is in a state of civil war and outright chaos as two conflicting governments claim responsibility over the country, militias battle for control and extremists accrue concerning amounts of power. As the world focuses once again on Libya, there is renewed debate over whether or not the 2011 intervention was truly a success.

The WorldPost spoke with Ivo Daalder, President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the U.S. Ambassador to NATO during the 2011 Libyan revolution, about the current crisis in Libya and the 2011 intervention.

In 2012, you hailed the NATO operation in Libya as a model for intervention. Do you still perceive it that way?

The intervention at the time was designed to do three things: to make sure there was an arms embargo enforced on Gaddafi, that the people who were being attacked by government forces were protected and in some ways to provide the space and time for the people of Libya to decide their own future.

If you look at those goals they were all met. The impending disaster of an attack by Gaddafi’s forces on Benghazi was halted, over time the ability of Gaddafi’s forces to attack civilians declined, the arms embargo was kept in place and the people of Libya were given the opportunity to decide matters about their future by themselves.

Unfortunately, the way Libya has evolved demonstrates that just because you give people the opportunity to decide their own future they don’t always decide in the right or best way -- in the way that we would have wanted. So the situation in Libya has gone from bad to worse and is horrific in many dimensions. The future doesn’t look much brighter.

Do you think that a post-intervention presence in Libya would have been helpful?

Well 20/20 hindsight is difficult. The consultation at the time, which I still believe to be the right consultation, was that an incursion of foreign forces could have lead to greater stability and a way for Libyans to decide a wiser future, or it could have led to foreign forces being part of the problem instead of the solution.

Given where we were at the time, the fear was that the likelihood of foreign forces becoming part of the problem was high, particularly if those forces were American. As a result, Washington and European capitals decided that we would intervene for a limited set of circumstances and for a limited set of outcomes.

Could it have gone a different way with an outside military intervention? Possibly. But if we look at the last 25 years, the successes of those foreign interventions are few and far between.

We haven’t found that goldilocks solution yet and we probably never will, but it doesn’t mean we give up and never try.

Some have argued in hindsight that the positive effects of mitigating potential mass killing didn't outweigh the long-term negative effects of regional destabilization. How do you view that argument?

History will tell, as they say. It seems to me that there were fundamentally three choices. The first one is do nothing. We would have seen a massive humanitarian nightmare inflicted on the people of Libya by their government. The second one was to intervene in a limited fashion -- sufficient to provide the time to the Libyan people to take matters into their own hands. The the third one was to add a reconstruction and stabilization commitment of foreign, presumably U.S. and European-led forces, to such a limited intervention.

It was decided that we couldn’t and shouldn’t allow a humanitarian nightmare to happen we could prevent it with a relatively simple military intervention.

Should we have done more after the intervention to stabilize Libya? The president is on record saying that we should have. I’m not there yet. I’m personally not convinced that our presence on the ground to stabilize the situation over the long term would have been welcomed, nor would it have worked any better than it did in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

What general lessons are there to be learned from Libya about humanitarian interventions?

I think one takeaway is that we need to make a judgment about how much of the problem we want to own. If you think that the only way to intervene is to own the entire problem, you need to be prepared to spend the costs in lives and treasure that implies.

There was was an underestimation of the potential for violence and disagreement and the breakdown of the country into opposing militia forces.

How much of the problem do you think NATO should own in Libya?

I think the moment NATO or anybody else had put in troops, they would have owned more. But I’m not prepared to take on the commitments of humanitarian intervention in Libya for 20 years. It's not yet clear to me that non-intervention is always the best option. That leaves the Libya case as something that is less than perfect, in fact it’s far from perfect, but not necessarily wrong.

I do think we can make a legitimate argument that we prevented a humanitarian disaster, that we enabled the Libyan people to decide their own future. The fact that Libyans decided about their future in a way that turned out to be so disastrous isn’t NATO's responsibility, it’s the responsibility first and foremost of those people.

Do you think there was a naiveté in judging Libya and the potential fallout of intervention, either in terms of militias or security apparatus?

There was was an underestimation of the potential for violence and disagreement and the breakdown of the country into opposing militia forces.

Clearly we’re learning a lesson, as we did in Iraq, as we did in Afghanistan, as we’re doing in Syria, as we did in the Balkans, as we did in Somalia and Mali etcetera. There’s a lot to be learned about how one intervenes with a result that is acceptable and a cost that is equally acceptable. We haven’t found that goldilocks solution yet and we probably never will, but it doesn’t mean we give up and never try or that we take ownership of these situations and put in troops to stay there for twenty or thirty years.

Should NATO have any involvement in mitigating the security crisis in Libya?

I think NATO is trying to get involved and there is a role for training security forces, presumably outside the country. The difficulty right now is that it’s not clear who the organization should back, because the country is deeply divided into factions. A more active security training and development role in say ’11 and ’12 and ’13 would have been useful.

Are you going to risk training the wrong side?

There were some attempts at foreign training programs but they tended not to go very well. A recent report revealed that Libyan cadets were kicked out of Jordan after burning down a sports facility.

I haven’t seen that report. Because there is no central governing authority that is accepted by the international community, it's a real problem to identify who you're going train and who you're going to support. Are you going to risk training the wrong side or keep your hands off and see how the power structure evolves over time? So far it’s been the latter more than the former.

I think that those of us that were engaged in the intervention had hoped for a better outcome and I think we all constantly look back and ask 'was this the right decision? Did we do it in the right way?'

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.



July 2014 Attacks In Libya