Counting the Costs of the Libyan War Ten Years Later

The U.S.-led military intervention in Libya began ten years ago this month, and a decade later there has still not been a proper reckoning for the failure of a war that was neither legal under U.S. law nor justified. The Libyan war’s architects no longer boast about their "good" intervention, but there is no evidence that they have learned anything from their failure nor has there been any accountability for those responsible. Libya has been consigned to ongoing strife and instability since 2011, and the surrounding region has been convulsed by the aftershocks of the collapse of the old Libyan government. The Libyan war was not necessary for US or European security, and its destabilizing effects on North and West Africa have made Libya’s neighbors worse off than they were. The Libyan intervention failed in its stated goal of protecting the civilian population, and it caused more harm than it prevented.

One of the largely unexamined costs of the war has been the damage that it did to Congress’ role in matters of war. Obama had no authority to order US forces to attack the Libyan government. The Libyan government had not attacked and did not threaten the US or US forces. There was absolutely no justification under US law to engage in hostilities against that government, and Congress never voted to authorize US military operations in Libya. The US hid behind the fig leaf of a Security Council resolution, but that didn’t make it any less of an overreach by the president. The Obama administration lamely claimed that US forces were not engaged in hostilities because the other side could not effectively shoot back, but Obama violated the Constitution and ignored the requirements of the War Powers Resolution. Normalizing illegal, unauthorized warfare became one of the unfortunate legacies of the Obama presidency, and that practice began with the specious legal arguments offered in support of the Libyan intervention in 2011.

The "responsibility to protect" doctrine that liberal hawks used to legitimize the war did not properly apply to the conflict in Libya, and partly because interventionists abused the doctrine in Libya it has been discredited through the connection with the overthrow of Gaddafi. The pursuit of regime change stretched the relevant Security Council resolution, UNSCR 1973, beyond recognition. The US persuaded Russia and China to abstain on the resolution on the grounds that the intervening governments would not seek to topple the Libyan government, but in the event the US and its allies provided air cover for anti-government rebels to drive across the country and depose the dictator. Russia concluded from this that they were wrong to have cooperated with the US, and that started the souring of U.S.-Russian relations that has grown worse over the last decade. It is likely that Russia would have run interference at the U.N. for the Syrian government anyway, but the bait-and-switch over Libya guaranteed that they would refuse to cooperate with the US

Supporters of the Libyan war thought that siding with rebels in Libya would boost the fortunes of popular protesters across the region. A war that was sold as necessary to protect the "Arab Spring" uprisings instead opened the door to the constant meddling of foreign authoritarian regimes in Libyan politics that continues until today. Egypt and the UAE have exploited the chaos left behind by regime change to back their war criminal client Khalifa Haftar, whose campaign to oust the internationally recognized government in Tripoli plunged Libya into a new round of civil war from which it has not yet escaped.

One of the common defenses of the Libyan intervention is that Libya would have turned into "another Syria" without it, but the truth is that Libya has become another Syria on a smaller scale because many foreign governments choose to use it as a playground for their forces and their proxies. Both Libya and Syria have been turned into charnel houses because outside governments have been trying to carve out spheres of influence at the expense of the civilian population. It is this ongoing meddling by multiple governments that has intensified and prolonged the suffering of both countries. In both cases, outside intervention has made things worse as it usually does.

Interventionists predicted that siding with rebels in Libya would deter other authoritarian regimes from cracking down brutally on protesters in their countries, but instead the Libyan war served as a distraction from the Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain that took place at the same time. The message that the Syrian government got from the intervention in Libya was that it needed to avoid the international isolation that Gaddafi experienced. Western governments’ abrupt abandonment of normal relations with Gaddafi at the first opportunity showed Assad what Western promises were worth. Farther afield, the North Korean leadership saw Gaddafi’s grisly demise as a cautionary tale about what might happen to them if they ever negotiated away their nuclear weapons program. In 2018, John Bolton’s talk of applying a "Libyan model" to North Korea reinforced North Korea’s determination not to make such fatal concessions. North Korea already had its own reasons to hold on to its arsenal, but the Libyan war gave them proof that the US couldn’t be trusted to honor its bargains and that agreeing to dismantle unconventional weapons programs was as good as a death sentence.

Supporters of the Libyan war have never had to answer for their failure, and many of them still deny that the war itself was a mistake. While most of them understandably no longer crow about how right they were, they have paid no professional or political price for the wreckage they helped to cause. That is a symptom of the general lack of accountability in our political system, especially as it relates to foreign policy, but it is nonetheless remarkable that US officials and analysts can advocate for such destructive policies and face no consequences when those policies ruin entire countries. Many of them have since gone on to serve in government again at high levels, including the current Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The most depressing lesson of the Libyan war may be that being disastrously wrong about matters of life and death is still no impediment to professional success in the foreign policy establishment.

Most of the costs of the Libyan war have been borne by the people of Libya and the surrounding region, and they will be living with the effects of our so-called "good intervention" for many years to come. Military intervention always causes more harm than its advocates expect, and those advocates are always among the first to forget about the country that they wanted to attack. Americans need to remember the chaos and destruction that our government has unleashed on other parts of the world in our name, and we need to demand changes to our foreign policy to prevent that from happening again in the future.

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.