With the Arabian Revolt sweeping the Middle East in early 2011, Libya’s turn came on February 17. Throwing off decades of fear, and not bothering with peaceful demonstrations as Tunisia and Egypt had to free themselves of tyranny, nor the Syrians who tried peaceful demonstrations for six entire months, the Libyans went straight to armed rebellion, and soon the city of Benghazi had been pried from the regime’s grip and become the de facto capital of the revolution. The Libyans had no confidence in protests to alter the regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi. They were right. The demented Colonel responded with a brutality that included using fighter jets against civilian areas. As the violence escalated, on March 17 the U.N. Security Council passed resolution 1973, which
Authorize[d] Member States …, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, … to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians.
Celebrations erupted in Libya at the news that deliverance was coming. For reasons unclear there was a 48-hour delay, which allowed Qaddafi’s forces to be right at the gates of Benghazi by the time the American intervention came on March 19 in the form of Operation ODYSSEY DAWN. Qaddafi’s rudimentary air defences were disabled and a no-fly zone instituted. President Obama then made the decision, on March 31, to hand the operation to NATO. This was the infamous “leading from behind“. Still, it was enough to bring down the regime. In late August, Qaddafi was driven from his capital, and on October 20, Qaddafi’s escape from his hometown of Sirte was cut off by French jets and he was pulled out of a drainage ditch and given to the crowd. They were not pretty those closing scenes in Sirte, but they were long overdue.
The Russians would protest that their abstention on the U.N. resolution was never meant to encompass regime-change, and the West, including the U.S. Defence Secretary and the British Chief of Defence, denied that this had been the intention. How they proposed to protect civilians without killing the despot giving the orders that endangered them was never explained. On Oct. 31, NATO’s Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR was ended, and that was more or less it for Western involvement, except for the victory lap of course.
In the elections that followed liberation in June 2012, the tribalists/nationalists would carry the day; the Islamists were trounced. But the problems had already begun. Between April and September 2012 there had been “at least five … attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi,” and this would culminate in the fiasco on Sept. 11, 2012, when the American ambassador and three other U.S. citizens were killed by al-Qaeda jihadists at the Consulate in that city. There were many democratic and pro-American people in Libya—protesters had expelled the Islamic militants who attacked the U.S. Consulate from their base in Benghazi after the attack—but a small group of violent fanatics can impose themselves if nobody else has the power to resist them. Lawlessness was allowed to overtake Libya, and the decent government that had come to office by elections was unable to enforce its writ. America had made one effort to send a training mission to Libya to buttress the forces of law and order but it was withdrawn in mid-2012 “until the security of U.S. personnel and equipment could be guaranteed“!
2013 did not shape up any better. The parliament passed laws at gun-point, a proposed NATO training mission went nowhere, and there were numerous kidnappings, including the Prime Minister. The east of Libya had always been fertile ground for the jihadists. Derna, for example, had contributed “far and away” the most holy warriors on a per capita basis to the jihad against constitutional government in Iraq. With no State to keep this at bay, and collapsing order around Libya, notably Mali, the jihadists converged on Libya for shelter and al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadists’ presence in the country became more pronounced.
Elections in June 2014 had again defeated the Islamists but this time the zealots decided to take by force what they could not get by the ballot, and on Saturday, the situation unravelled completely when Tripoli fell to Islamic militants under the banner of Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn). The Islamists set ablaze Tripoli International Airport, further destruction of the city was reported, and the remnants of the police and army, as well as militiamen loyal to the government, were being systematically rounded up by Dawn. In the east, fighting is ongoing between the Islamists and the supposedly-nationalist militias of Khalifa Haftar, a former General, a leftover of the old regime who has seemingly modelled himself on Abdel Fattah as-Sisi, a putschist and autocrat who claims he can keep the Islamists in check. Libya’s Parliament called for international intervention earlier this month and was rebuffed. This is the harvest.
But this wasn’t all. Regional dynamics soon intruded:
Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli … The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing Washington, leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines. Egyptian officials explicitly denied to American diplomats that their military played any role in the operation … In recent months, the officials said, teams of “special forces” operating out of Egypt but possibly composed primarily of Emiratis had also successfully destroyed an Islamist camp near … Derna …
Several officials said in recent days that United States diplomats were fuming about the airstrikes, believing the intervention could further inflame the Libyan conflict as the United Nations and Western powers are seeking to broker a peaceful resolution.
Officials said the government of Qatar has already provided weapons and support to the Islamist-aligned forces inside Libya, so the new strikes represent a shift from a battle of proxies to direct involvement. …
“In every arena—in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Libya, even what happened in Egypt—this regional polarization, with Saudi Arabia and the … U.A.E. on one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other, has proved to be a gigantic impediment to international efforts to resolve any of these crisis [sic],” said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Middle East specialist at the State Department.
A snapshot but a very dense one: The region’s actors, perhaps especially America’s allies, have taken to free-lancing because they have no confidence that the President will actually do anything; Qatar is playing as destructive a role as it can; the struggles within the Muslim world are the major front in the region (Israel is not even on the radar of these States); the Obama administration’s failure to intervene properly and stay to secure the aftermath has led to disaster in Libya, as it has in Iraq; and while bad actors are making real military gains, the administration worries that using force to stop them will only make it worse and tries to bring about a political solution in situations that have long-since passed the point of no return.
Credit where it is due: The United States had come to the rescue of Libya when nobody else would (Russia and China) or could (the Arab League). But the U.S. had not secured the aftermath, the one lesson all sides of the argument should surely have learned from Iraq.
It didn’t have to be this way. Consider an alternative history of the region over the last three years. If the intervention against Qaddafi had come sooner, in the first two weeks rather than after four, and if it had targeted him and his elite directly and unapologetically, the war would not have dragged out for eight months; there would have been much less destruction and the jihadists would have had much less time and space to set themselves up. If Special Forces, military advisers, and other help were made available to the elected government afterwards then order could have been restored, in no small part because it wouldn’t have broken down so badly. If fifteen or twenty thousand troops could have been left in Iraq it would have allowed a fighting chance of keeping peace between the sects, stopped Iran using Iraq as a transit point to support the Assad dictatorship, kept Syria’s furies largely out of Iraq, and ensured that the Islamic State didn’t get a chance to regenerate in Iraq. If an early aerial intervention were mounted in Syria in late 2011 or early (or even mid-) 2012 it would have stopped the Zarqawi’ites metastasizing on Syrian soil, denying them the conditions they needed—including the complicity of the regime and Iran—and ensured a much better outcome by helping to power nationalists, who were overwhelmingly powerful early in this rebellion, breaking Iran’s power in the Mediterranean, and not incidentally preventing a great deal of killing and destruction. Project the worst you like for casualties from a NATO intervention in Syria and it’s not 220,000. (In Libya, 72 civilians were collateral damage in NATO’s entire campaign, less than one day’s work from Assad, and estimates of the total casualties are being revised down all the time.)
For those who worry that this is taking on too much, just remember: The West is going to get dragged in anyway. It will be on terms much less advantageous, the outcomes will be worse than they could have been with earlier intervention, and many more people will die, but these situations will eventually reach a point where they can no longer be ignored whether, as in Iraq and Syria, it is the rise of transnational terrorist groups or, as will soon be the case in Libya, the rise of transnational terrorist groups and a destabilising flood of refugees into Europe, some of whom will be agents of these terrorist groups. In Iraq and Libya, it would have been much easier to simply stay on and secure the gains the West had already achieved. As in so many other cases, what to do about Syria has not been made easier by letting it drag out.
The next question of the anti-interventionists tends to be on the “exit strategy,” but this is a fantasy on at least two counts. One is that it sets up a standard of prescience on interventionists that anti-interventionists never get held to. For example, Edward Miliband, having organised the defeat of the proposal in the British Parliament that said Bashar al-Assad should pay a military price for gassing children, now bears partial responsibility for everybody who has been killed in Syria by the regime since last August because he emboldened it by sending the message that chemical weapons use was cost-free. But somehow the costs of inaction never seem to register in the same way. Second, an “exit strategy” can’t be known until it’s seen. The U.S. still has troops in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Bosnia, and Kosovo—and so much the better. Look how well they turned out as opposed to the American South, Somalia, Haiti, and Iraq where American troops were pulled out too soon. By being prepared to stay for as long as it takes, there’s every chance you won’t have to stay so long. If it is understood that you are determined to see it through, the local actors will make their long-term arrangements with you. If, like Obama in Afghanistan, you announce a commitment and simultaneously announce the end-date, the local actors make their arrangements instead with internal and external forces they know will be there forever.
In short, the lesson of Libya is not that the intervention in 2011 was a mistake. It is the lesson once articulated by Representative Charles Wilson of Texas, who was rather over-sold as having single-handedly driven the Red Army out of Afghanistan in the excellent film Charlie Wilson’s War. “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world,” said the Congressman. “And then we fucked up the endgame.”