Before We Head to Libya Again: Learning the Wrong Lessons From a Failed Intervention


In an interview on Fox News Sunday, President Obama said that the 2011 Libya intervention was the greatest disaster and worst mistake of his presidency. Obama apologized for the lack of post-intervention planning, but not for the intervention itself,  adding that intervening in Libya “was the right thing to do.” As rumors abound that Europe again prepares to intervene in Libya it is worth analyzing the lessons of the last intervention. The intervention in Libya is arguably considered disastrous. It provided a foothold for the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), destabilized an entire coastline only miles from Europe, and rendered the entire region a launching ground for human smugglers profiting on migrant trafficking, not just from Middle East, but from as far away as Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Pakistan. As a rookie foreign affairs blogger five years ago, I argued that plunging into in Libya would be imprudent. Academics such as Stephen Walt, Micah Zenko, and others repeatedly warned against intervening in Libya.

The reasons were simple.

There was never any doubt Gaddafi was brutal; he was a secular authoritarian leader who ruled Libya with an iron fist. There were complaints about the general well-being of Libyans and the stagnating economy, but overall, Libya was an island of stability especially when compared to countries in and around that state. Libya, was, although, one of the primary rogue states during the 1980s and 1990s. The fate of Saddam Hussein also made him realize he needed the reconsider his hostile approach to the West. As such, Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program and assisted in tackling jihadists and intelligence cooperation. Gaddafi’s human rights record was horrifying, but qualitatively no different than other allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. One had to tolerate his rambling, mind-numbing rants in the United Nations, to be certain—but Libya was crucial in securing an entire borderline between the continent of Africa and Europe. Then, a small group of radicals supported by Islamist elements from around the world — including by U.S. allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia — waged a brutal, sectarian, and tribalistic campaign against the state.

The Obama administration was still fresh and optimistic after the Egyptian protests and toppling of Hosni Mubarak. Washington joined with a number of NATO and European allies to enforce the United Nations Security Council Resolution-imposed ceasefire and support the growing anti-Gaddafi forces on the ground. Regardless of the intentions of the coalition, the Libyan intervention resulted in the death of Gaddafi and sparked widespread instability. The civil war that followed rages on to this day, and Libya is now a battleground for rival Islamist forces. The world watches the humanitarian disaster in horror, and migrants flee unguarded coastlines to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

The Libya intervention was arguably the first test for the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia, announced in 2009. The reset had thawed relations and led to the American downsizing of planned missile defenses in Eastern Europe, a move applauded by Russia. As a result, Russia also stood down and refrained from vetoing the U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing the mission to protect civilians from Gaddafi. The mission morphed into regime change, which worsened the siege mentality of Kremlin, as evidenced by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s caustic remarks about avoiding Syria turning into another Libya. Further, there are structural arguments that the Libyan intervention influenced Moscow and even Beijing about how modern statecraft would be conducted. In this argument, the realist “might is right” principle was then reflected in further Russian behavior in Eastern Europe and even in Syria.

President Obama tried to resist the temptation to intervene in Libya, but he was swayed by Europe and his own cabinet. Five years after the uprising, the Libyan state is hardly recognizable. Realists opposed and remain skeptical about humanitarian intervention. In a historically fragile and tribalistic society, interventions that do not possess a well-defined and concrete plan to establish a credible government are likely to create even more humanitarian crises in the future. Recent signs point to further U.S. involvement to stabilize Libya, as U.S. air craft bombed an Islamic State convoy, including those involved in the recent beach massacre in Tunisia. According to leaked documents, the EU is considering sending troops to Libya. Inevitably, Europe will not be able to manage such an intervention alone and may drag the United States into the fray.

In a Foreign Affairs article, Alan Kuperman wrote that “Libya was an abject failure, judged even by its own standards. Libya has not only failed to evolve into a democracy; it has devolved into a failed state.” Before further engagement in Libya, policymakers should consider that there exists no evidence that a U.S.- and European-led intervention would improve human lives or resolve any of the structural problems of Libya. Libya will remain a deeply divided society on tribal and ethnic lines, plagued by economic stagnation and massive corruption. In such a setting, another intervention would only fuel anti-Western sentiments, which could further destabilize conditions and help ISIL recruit. If strictly judged from a cost-benefit analysis, a further intervention might result in the increased chances of terrorist attacks in mainland Europe directly correlated to more refugees pouring in from the unguarded northern Libyan coastlines and border. Not to mention, it will be a further waste of millions of dollars, without any tangible short-term gains, and that will be difficult to justify to the Euro-American electorate.

In carrying out the Libya intervention, President Obama clarified once and for all that he is a Wilsonian idealist at the end of the day. He is not a realist, not that there were any last remnants of doubt. There were other ways of dealing with civil wars in the Middle East and North Africa, reflecting different grand strategies of area containment. Obama arguably learned the wrong lessons from his administration’s misadventure. If these lessons are internalized, future U.S. presidents and policymakers might quite possibly continue to commit the same mistakes, over and over again when it comes to intervening in Middle East, thereby jeopardizing relations with other powers.


Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is on Russian foreign policy and neorealism. He can be found on Twitter @MrMaitra.