3 Lessons We Must Learn From Libya

In the run-up to war, NATO allies failed to adequately understand the situation on the ground.

If we needed any more evidence of the error of 2011’s U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya, this month’s parliamentary report from the United Kingdom serves up an ample portion. Though much of the document deals with U.K.-specific figures and policies, it equally provides at least three more general lessons we would do well to learn here across the pond—not for petty politics to lay blame for the past but rather to prevent repetition of avoidable mistakes in Libya and elsewhere in the Mideast.

1. The case for intervention was lacking. In the run-up to war, NATO allies failed to adequately understand the situation on the ground, glossing over or even misrepresenting key details like the allegiances of the militants whom Western intervention would assist and the extent of danger risked by Libyan civilians. “We have seen no evidence that the UK Government carried out a proper analysis of the nature of the rebellion in Libya,” the report notes in its conclusion. Instead, “it selectively took elements of Muammar Gaddafi’s rhetoric at face value; and it failed to identify the militant Islamist extremist element in the rebellion.” As a result, intervention was justified on the basis of “erroneous assumptions” and egregious misinformation.

2. Political options were inadequately explored. Any politician will pledge to make use of force an option of last resort in foreign policy, but in Libya those promises were smashed. “Political engagement might have delivered civilian protection, regime change and reform at lesser cost” to the Libyan people and NATO allies alike, but instead the Obama Administration and its NATO pals rushed to war, ignoring both Congress and widespread disinterest in a new intervention among the American public. This use of force as a first resort ignored offers of negotiations and internationally-monitored elections from Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, who—though hardly trustworthy—offered at least a more reliable partner for talks than the failed state and warring rival parties we see in Libya today. Recall, he unilaterally disarmed after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, destroying his nuclear weapons program.

3. Strategy was shaped by naïve interventionism instead of sober assessments of reality. Among the testimonies heard in development of the report was that of Liam Fox, who was serving as the U.K.’s secretary of state for defense during the 2011 Libyan misadventure. Reflecting on that endeavor, he made these remarks outlining a simple rubric for questions that must be asked in advance of any new military intervention:

No. 1: what does a good outcome look like? No. 2: is such an outcome engineerable? No. 3: do we have to be part of the engineering? No. 4: how much of the aftermath would you like to own? I think that there is, and has been in our history, a tendency to answer No. 1 without answering the rest of the questions. It is not responsible for any Government at any time to go into any conflict and to deploy our armed forces without answering all four questions.

The same tendency Fox observes in his own history—to answer the first question and ignore the rest—may all too easily be observed here, as well. These infinitely practical questions should be a mandatory baseline for any fresh war proposal our inevitably amnesiac politicians in Washington throw our way. Had we answered them in 2011, the United States would almost certainly have left well enough alone in Libya and avoided expensive, dangerous, and counterproductive entanglement there that continues to escalate, foment terrorism, and destabilize the region today.