Lessons from Obama’s War in Libya

In March 2011, President Barack Obama succumbed to French pressure and led the NATO alliance from behind in bombing the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. At the time, Obama was criticized for not letting the United States remain in the forefront of eliminating odious regimes through the use of military power. Given the results of post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya, however, perhaps having "led from behind" gives Obama some political cover for what has become yet another U.S. intervention fiasco. It shouldn’t.

Although France was the political instigator of the idea to intervene in Libya, the United States actually did not lead from behind in the military campaign. The United States conducted the most dangerous initial air strikes before turning the battle over to its ever less-and-less militarily capable NATO allies and also provided critical command, control, communications, and logistics, which no other military on earth can contribute. In short, the overthrow of Gaddafi using NATO military power had US fingerprints all over it.

Obama undertook this questionable intervention even after George W. Bush had left him the long nation-building wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to clean up. These military tar pits already had demonstrated clearly the difficulty in converting to democracy, at gunpoint, faraway countries with unreceptive political cultures, let alone even governing those lands sufficiently to prevent chaos after strong indigenous regimes had been toppled using military power. Nevertheless, France and the United States duped Russia into agreeing to a United Nations Security Council Resolution providing for a NATO "no-fly" zone over Libya – allegedly to prevent Gaddafi from killing civilians in the Libyan city of Benghazi during an Arab Spring revolt. Instead of just clearing the skies of Libyan aircraft, the NATO aircraft, in combination with rebel forces on the ground, destroyed Gaddafi’s security forces and overthrew him.

This "humanitarian" intervention was based on the false pretense that Gaddafi was already slaughtering civilians, which Obama implied in his public statements. Gaddafi was beating back the rebellion, but in the four major cities that he had retaken, no civilians had been massacred. Before his assault on the fifth city, Benghazi, he had threatened only to kill rebels in active resistance, not civilians. In fact, he said he would not kill rebels who threw down their weapons and even offered to give rebels free passage to Egypt. Some say that Gaddafi couldn’t have been trusted, but in this war he did have a track record; instead, the reality of the situation demonstrated that Obama and other Western leaders couldn’t be believed.

Thus, this U.S.-led "humanitarian" mission likely had ulterior motives – as most historically have. Of course, one must speculate as to what they were. Gaddafi, a smalltime dictator, had been excessively demonized as a threat to the United States since Ronald Reagan picked a fight with him in the 1980s. In fact, at the time of the 2011 NATO intervention, Gaddafi had made nice with the West, given up his nuclear weapons program, and was providing the United States good intelligence on Islamist terrorists. However, because Gaddafi had long been demonized, France and the United States just couldn’t resist taking advantage of the Arab Spring revolt against him to get rid of him for good.

Yet overthrowing Gaddafi after he gave up his nuclear weapons program (as the United States also did with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein) is a bad signal to aspiring nuclear nations that non-nuclear nations get no respect from the United States. Also, getting rid of the Libyan strongman has created chaos in the country, as warring tribal militias have formed to rival governments, one infested with Islamist radicals. Also, ISIS has taken advantage of Libya’s turmoil to establish strongholds in the country.

The surrounding region has also been destabilized, as weapons from Gaddafi’s huge stockpiles have fueled conflict all over the Middle East. Included in those weapons are hundreds of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, which could be used by terrorists to shoot down civilian airliners. Also, a portion of those arms made it to Islamic jihadists in Nigeria. Furthermore, some of Gaddafi’s Tuareg fighters returned home to neighboring Mali and began a rebellion in northern Mali that was hijacked by radical Islamists, which necessitated a French military intervention to try to tamp it down. Terrorist bases in Libya have trained jihadists to conduct cross border acts of mass slaughter against Tunisia’s tourist industry, killing scores of people.

Yet there are still people who argue that toppling Gaddafi was needed for the symbolic goals of standing with the NATO allies and siding with Arab Spring revolts, even though the latter didn’t turn out to be very democratic after all. However, such symbolism is trumped by the harsh reality that if anything, US security has been eroded by Gaddafi’s weapons being spread around the Middle East and by the resulting internal mayhem in Libya, which in turn has led to terrorist training bases and ISIS strongholds in that country. Even these developments could probably be overstated as threats to the United States per se, but security-wise the United States was still better off when Gaddafi kept things under control in Libya.

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Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.