You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Libya Is Yet Another Reason to Be Wary of Humanitarian Interventions

Four years after revolution, the country remains in chaos

Abdullah Doma / Getty Images

On the fourth anniversary of the February 17 revolution, the prospects for peace and stability in Libya seem more remote than ever. The beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by a local branch of the Islamic State (ISIS)—to which Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi swiftly responded with airstrikes—is the most recent example of the instability and complete lack of security that has followed the NATO-backed overthrow of former President Muammar Qaddafi. Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, who visited Libya earlier this winter, has written that “[t]here is no overstating the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya.” Indeed, many see the country as the world’s next failed state.

There are now effectively two competing governments in Libya. The internationally recognized Prime Minister, Abdullah Al Thinni, was ousted from the capital last summer by an Islamist coalition known as Libyan Dawn. Western Libya is now controlled by an array of groups in Misrata and Tripoli which include moderates like the Muslim Brotherhood and other, more radical Islamist groups. Al Thinni’s government is now based in the eastern city of Tobruk, and it’s backed by secular forces led by retired General Khalifa Hifter.

This “Libyan National Army” includes tribes, militias, and units formerly part of the military; Hifter’s war-on-terror rhetoric often mirrors Sisi’s in depicting his “Operation Dignity” as an offensive against Islamists, all of whom are extremists. The situation has turned into a near proxy war, with Turkey and Qatar backing Islamists in the west, while Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) back the fight against them. Talks in Geneva, the only chance for a negotiated solution, have made virtually no progress. And Tuesday's airstrikes, the first carried out by Islamist factions using what it claimed were Russian-made MIGs, suggest violence is likely for some time.

The economic situation in Libya is equally bleak. Even before the sharp drop in oil prices, production had dropped dramatically—by 80 percent, according the chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation. Militias began taking over significant portions of Libya’s oil infrastructure in 2012, leaving the state starved of revenue. Basic services like electricity are completely unreliable.

Libya’s dissolution challenges the notion that NATO’s intervention, ostensibly humanitarian in nature, was a success. But to determine the nature of its failure, it is necessary to examine the original goal.

As is now well known, President Barack Obama—along with NATO—claimed that military action was necessary in order to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi, where Qaddafi’s forces had surrounded a defenseless population. The problem with this pretext was the weakness of the evidence suggesting it. In November 2011, Hugh Roberts, a professor at Tufts University and a former director of the International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project, wrote in the London Review of Books that there had been no massacres in the towns Qaddafi had retaken since the start of the revolution. In Foreign Affairs, Professor Alan J. Kuperman of the University of Texas points out that Human Rights Watch’s casualty figures from Misrata show that less than 3 percent of the victims were women and children in the first 7 weeks of the uprising, indicating that combatants were the primary targets. As Kuperman writes, “[t]here is no evidence or reason to believe that Qaddafi had planned or intended to perpetrate a killing campaign.” 
 So while Qaddafi was certainly a brutal tyrant repressing his people, there is little reason to believe Benghazi was the next Srebrenica.

If a mission’s pretext is flawed, it is itself doomed to failure. The intervention becomes a solution in search of a problem. The Libyan case is more complicated than its Iraqi equivalent: While no WMDs were found—because they were not present in the country—in Libya, one cannot prove a counterfactual. Nonetheless, a reasonable assessment of the evidence would not have predicted a massacre.

The second failure of the West’s war in Libya can be traced to the decision to go beyond the mandate of UN Resolution 1973. In it, the Security Council permitted a no-fly zone and "all necessary measures" to protect civilians, while tightening an arms embargo imposed in an earlier resolution. In 2011, Obama said “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” The following month, that became the explicit goal of the bombing campaign, and the arms embargo was violated. It is troubling that approximately 1,000 people died in the Libyan uprising before NATO intervention, according to a 2013 calculation by Kuperman. With death toll estimates now reaching as high as 10,000 for the entire conflict, it is now clear that the vast majority of deaths occurred post-intervention.

NATO’s war focused on removing Qaddafi from power, and did not include providing security until a democratic political transition could be achieved. Various militias involved in the uprising—including ISIS and other Islamist extremists—therefore filled the power and security vacuum, and took advantage of ungoverned territory. But as is clear from the various Western military occupations of the past, from Vietnam to Iraq, even the presence of ground troops cannot ensure a peaceful transition of power. It is simply impossible to ensure stability after an armed intervention.

Had a massacre in fact been imminent in Benghazi, and had NATO’s operation and no-fly zone been limited to protecting those civilians, it is possible that a ceasefire could have been reached and negotiations held. Instead, NATO rejected ceasefire offers, even when proposed by the African Union, arguing that no political solution could include Qaddafi. Agreeing to negotiate with the Libyan dictator in the first months of the uprising could have mitigated much of the violence that followed.

It is easy to imagine a hypothetical situation in which a humanitarian military intervention could be justified and potentially save lives. Some point to India’s 1971 intervention—denounced by the U.S.—in East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) as a model, as it ended a genocidal slaughter there. Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia to overthrow of the Pol Pot regime in late 1978 is also thought to have stopped mass killing. Both cases, however, were interventions in neighboring countries and—as was the case in Vietnam—followed serious provocation.

In practice, the criteria for humanitarian intervention are rarely met, and the execution is never perfect. Libya is just the latest example. Now, as always, what is needed is rigorous diplomacy.