Libya: A Good, but not Model Intervention

April 8, 2014

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Christopher Chivvis, Toppling Qaddafi: Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Just what should the United States and its allies do when someone, somewhere in the smaller nations of the world, cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of war? In Toppling Qaddafi, Christopher Chivvis tries to find an answer to this question by looking at the NATO intervention during the 2011 Libyan Civil War. This book gets it right: it is an endorsement of the Libyan intervention without being an endorsement of the dangerous Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. , Humanitarian interventions can work, but must only if calibrated to the specific crisis they seek to address. The book reminds us that, in cases of humanitarian intervention, the intervening state(s) is not fighting a war to destroy an enem. Rather, that state is using military power as a scalpel to shape the development of a chaotic situation. Chivvis examines the difficulties that come along with that and how NATO overcame them. In doing so, he provides a caution for those who would advocate more of these sorts of operations, along the lines of a so-called “Libya Model.”

As a historical account, Toppling Qaddafi clearly points out the special circumstances that made Libya an attractive prospect for intervention. The rebellion was, almost from the beginning, at least nominally unified under the politically acceptable National Transition Council, and it was able to quickly take and hold territory. Qaddafi was internationally isolated, militarily weak and seemingly made the case for intervention himself with a series of wacky incitements to mass murder. Libya’s flat, open desert geography made it an ideal setting for an air campaign. Contrast this with Syria: the opposition is completely fractious and contains some unsavory factions nearly as eager to kill Americans as Assad loyalists, while the Assad government has resolute diplomatic and military support from its allies. The fighting is often concentrated in densely populated urban areas rather than the open desert. Syria also has a much more capable air defense network than Libya did. In other words, Libya was a much less risky operation because there was a clear set of diplomatic and military steps in a permissive operational environment that would produce a politically and strategically satisfactory outcome in a relatively short time-frame . Even with all its difficulties, Libya was a particularly easy situation to intervene in, and that criteria is not met by most other places where humanitarian intervention might be justified.

Those difficulties, and how NATO’s diplomats and military men resolved them, are the main subject of this book. Again and again, Chivvis shows that the main impediment to the military operations of the alliance was not enemy action but the need to clear the way diplomatically and politically before a operations could take place. Before the bombs could drop, NATO’s diplomats pressured the rebels to form a unified transitional government and secured UN and, crucially, Arab League approval. Qaddafi was allowed to incriminate himself with bloody speeches and the brutal suppression of the rebellious city of Zawiya. Even after intervention had begun, each step was taken with great caution and preparation. Not one airstrike happened without a long process to ensure the area was clear of civilians, often including warning shots to Qaddafi’s forces. The American decision to let our European allies lead the way created political and technical obstacles; for example the Europeans didn’t have enough ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) assets or precision-guided munitions. The political oversight process for planning airstrikes threatened to be long and cumbersome. But, one way or another, solutions were found. The United States quickly filled the ISR and munitions gaps, and officers of different nations working under Operation Unified Protector formed an informal “striker group” that studied airstrikes and submitted them for fast-tracked political approval.

All of this has frequently been cited by critics of the intervention as proof that it was executed all wrong. But Chivvis’ book defeats this critique. The sometimes halting pace of the NATO effort in Libya was a direct result of the difficulties that a humanitarian intervention faces because it is not the same as a normal war. If simply smashing Qaddafi’s forces was the aim, the United States could have unleashed full shock-and-awe on Libya with token contributions from Britain and France. However, in this operation, the main enemy was not Qaddafi’s forces, but political missteps. The possibility for political mistakes were many: the alliance needed to avoid getting too involved, in order to be able to avoid too much responsibility for what happened after Qaddafi’s overthrow. NATO also had to avoid too-blatant violations of its mandate and civilian casulaties, and keep the sometimes-difficult rebels on-side. So liaison with the rebellion, avoiding civilian casualties and maintaining diplomatic unity were all more important than directly destroying Qaddafi’s forces, and thus letting the Europeans take the lead after destroying Libya’s air defense was probably a good move on the part of the Obama administration.

Chivvis concludes that the intervention was a success, because it met the objectives defined at the outset. Many would contend that this ignores the supposed chaos and violence of post-war Libya. That’s not a good criticism. Daily life goes on in Libya; despite a low drumbeat of violence, there is not open civil war in the streets. In the absence of a NATO intervention, the rebellion may have evolved into a guerrilla insurgency and attracted a significant number of foreign jihadis, much like we are seeing in Syria. The war could still be going on today; we’d be dealing with a Libya that had already become the worst-case scenario for what we fear Libya might possibly become now. For the reasons listed above, NATO wasn’t able to act in Syria but it was able to act in Libya. By saving Libya’s people and economy from the ravages of what would have undoubtedly been years of war, and instead ending it in a few months, NATO’s intervention did a service to the Libyan people even if the postwar government is ineffectual and hectic. Chivvis’ account ends with a nuance that advocates of liberal intervention would do well to note. NATO demonstrated its ability to use tailored force as an instrument to shape the evolution of a crisis, and made a bad situation end in the least-bad way possible. But Libya is Libya, and even the limited intervention there required careful effort and presented numerous problems. Other, future crises are much less likely to be guided to a successful conclusion by intervention.

Jack Mulcaire is a contributor to War on the Rocks. During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, he helped lead a group of international volunteers that aided and consulted with local rebel councils and units. 

Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence

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