Five years after the United States, France, and Britain intervened to protect civilians in Libya, the country is in chaos. When Gaddafi’s regime collapsed, the state was picked apart and destroyed. Recent territorial gains by the Islamic State have Western countries considering another military intervention.
There are few pundits these days who do not, with the benefit of hindsight, consider the intervention a failure. Yet like most of the commentary since 2011, mainstream criticism focuses either on the decision to start the intervention in the first place, or on the failure to rebuild Libya afterwards. Even after five years of debate, policymakers, analysts, and pundits are still not paying enough attention to the key lessons that can be learned from the way the intervention was conducted: Political strategy must drive military planning (not the reverse); and in the 21st century, the West cannot simply ignore the concerns of emerging powers without great costs.
First, the United States, France, and Britain should have learned a lesson on the interplay of political and military tools of statecraft. Throughout the intervention, U.S. officials made attempts to negotiate with Gaddafi and his supporters. The negotiations proved difficult: Gaddafi was intransigent and U.S. officials didn’t fully believe any of the dictator’s self-proclaimed representatives actually spoke for him with authority. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court had started an investigation focusing on Gaddafi and his sons, , which served as another disincentive for them to leave power. With each unsuccessful attempt to offer a deal to Gaddafi, the allies found their belief confirmed that his exit from the stage and a political transition led by the National Transitional Council (NTC) was the easiest and quickest way to solve the Libya problem.
But there are no shortcuts in intervention because, at the end of the day, there is no way around politics. A successful political transition in Libya would have required a huge effort and patience to conduct a long and extremely difficult negotiation. When the allies chose regime change, that process did not happen. Five years later, the international community through a UN-led peace process is still trying to forge an intra-Libya consensus on how to govern a country that was never really a modern state — under much more difficult circumstances and with much less influence on at least one of the conflict parties compared to five years ago.
Once the immediate threat to civilians had been removed (the rationale for the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the military operation), the most realistic option to forge a deal short of all-out regime change was to stop the bombing and tackle the thorny political issues before the regime was utterly destroyed. The former British Chief of Defence Staff, Sir David Richards, testified at the U.K. Parliament’s inquiry into the Libya intervention in January that he had built just such a pause into the British military campaign plan after the immediate risk to civilians in Benghazi had been halted. He felt that the political leaders in the United States and Europe “should at least have had an opportunity to pause, perhaps have a ceasefire and have another go at the political process.” This pause never happened. A proposal by a senior Libyan military officer to arrange for a 72-hour cease-fire was turned down. In his testimony, Richards partly blamed French military activism for the lack of a break. Importantly, he also suggests that the Libyan rebels doing the fighting on the ground were not interested in a break. He emphasized that the NATO coalition could have put pressure on the NTC and insisted on a ceasefire. They never did.
The idea that the intervening coalition overestimated the capacity of the NTC to unite and rebuild Libya after Gaddafi was killed is now commonplace. An equally important lesson lies in the fact that Washington, Paris, and London made themselves overly dependent on the NTC at the start of the intervention. Instead of halting the air strikes and pressuring the rebels to seriously negotiate, they let the requirements for a successful military campaign dictate the political strategy. This lesson of political-military integration is still relevant today. Lacking its own forces on the ground, the United States relies on militia groups to support its strikes on Islamic State positions in Libya. By doing so, Washington has provided a disincentive for these groups to enter a unified Libyan army. Such an army is precisely what the international community is desperately trying to put together so that the leaders of a future Libyan state are not undermined by various armed groups — and so that they can start fighting the Islamic State themselves.
Second, it is time for Washington, Paris, and London to consider that when Russia, China, Brazil, India, and South Africa (all members of the Security Council at the time) heavily criticized the turn to regime change and the lack of room for political negotiations, they had a point — regardless of their motivations. They authorized and thereby legitimized the intervention for the purpose of protecting civilians in Benghazi. Then they were reduced to watching from the sidelines as the United States, France, and Britain stumbled into regime change without ever receiving as much as an explanation as to why regime change was necessary to protect civilians. (To the contrary, a week into the intervention President Obama announced that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake”). It is still confounding how little U.S., French, and British policymakers considered the diplomatic fallout of the turn towards regime change. In response to the criticisms by the BRICS states on the Security Council, Western states argued that military interventions could not be micromanaged. While this might be true, this answer did not engage with the substance of the BRICS complaint. It was the diplomatic equivalent of a parental (and paternalistic) “because I said so.”
Even if they were convinced that a pause in the airstrikes and an attempt to put all parties around a table would not have succeeded, Washington, Paris, and London could have listened to emerging powers’ concerns and briefly halted the military operation. In the best case, this might have opened the door for a negotiated deal and led to a more orderly transition. Even if it failed, a serious attempt and regard for the perspective of the BRICS countries would have helped maintain a basic level of trust among major powers and a more functional U.N. Security Council.
The costs of ignoring the BRICS have been severe. Negotiations surrounding the Syrian civil war, which erupted the same year, and the future of the Assad regime were destined to be difficult. Yet the turn of the Libya intervention engendered a sense of betrayal among India, Brazil, and South Africa, who then supported Russia and China in their bids to block any action by the Council in the crucial early months of the crisis. The way NATO leaders used the Security Council mandate all but ensured that it will be infinitely harder to ever again secure a mandate by the Security Council to use force to protect civilians.
The aftermath of the Libya intervention was severely mismanaged. But five years after the start of the intervention, with both Libya and Syria in chaos, it is time for policymakers, diplomats, and pundits in the United States, France, and Britain to reexamine the lessons from the decision-making process during the intervention.
Sarah Brockmeier is a Project Manager at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, and the author of several studies on the global politics of the 2011 intervention in Libya. She tweets at @sarahbrockmeier.
Image: A Harrier jet aircraft assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (26th MEU) returns to the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) for fuel and ammunition resupply while conducting air strikes supporting Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn. Photo by Lance Cpl. Michael S. Lockett, U.S. Marine Corps.