Action in Libya Took the Right Course — but Isn’t a New Roadmap
The U.S. aid to rebels in Libya was necessary, but it can’t necessarily be replicated across the Arab region.
Col. Muammar Gaddafi ruled over Libya with an iron fist for 42 years. During that time he went from an international pariahand state terrorist to Western darling and finally to anoverthrown tyrant targeted by the international community. His rise and fall help illustrate the complexities of our global system and how the changing power dynamics of that system affect U.S. national security. Ultimately, it was the right call for the U.S. and the international community to end the humanitarian crisis in Libya by supporting opposition forces. But the strategy specific to this situation doesn’t necessarily signal a new era in U.S. foreign policy.
A little background:
In the early 2000s, Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear and chemical weapons programs in exchange for international acceptance from Western powers and access to lucrative oil, development, and trade contracts. For several years he was embraced by Western foreign policymakers; as president of the African Union, he showed them that global “bad guys” could “turn good.” And then, with the birth of the Arab Spring, his house of cards fell.
Libya ignited in February 2011 as Gaddafi ordered the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests across the country. The battle between government soldiers and protesters quickly escalated into a humanitarian crisis as an armed revolt broke out. Thousands died as under-equipped rebels battled Gaddafi’s forces. The international community recognized that genocide in Libya was imminent. In March, the United Nations sanctioned de-facto intervention in the conflict by passing resolution 1973, establishing a no-fly/no-drive zone within the country. The Arab League strongly supported this measure, and several Middle Eastern states have been aggressive in their support for the revolutionary government, the Transitional National Council (TNC). This provided legal cover for NATO to strike at Gaddafi’s military assets, disabling the regime’s ability to wage war against the Libyan people and empowering the TNC to build a new, democratic Libyan state.
Making a case for Just War:
Arguments that U.S. intervention in Libya was warranted because the conflict became a humanitarian crisis are well founded, but do not represent a coherent trend in U.S. foreign policymaking. If supporting democracy and human rights abroad is a national security goal for the U.S. (and the international community), then every global humanitarian crisis represents a “Right to Protect” (R2P) and requires international intervention. However, current U.S. and NATO military commitments make R2P an unrealistic strategy for policymakers. As critics of the war have noted, the US is currently bogged down in a five-front foreign war, and any expansion of military engagement should not be taken lightly. The current revolt in Syria also illustrates the divide between ideology and reality. Many rogue governments (such as Syria’s Baath regime) are too well protected to be legitimate targets for decapitation by foreign intervention.
Selective engagement is also not a coherent U.S. strategy and intervention in Libya does not signal a change in any long-term U.S. policy toward genocide. Selective engagement is a tactical effort to promote global stability and is not a sound policy for advancing our national security interests. In other words, we didn’t support the rebels just because the people of Libya were suffering. We supported the rebels in Libya because removing Gaddafi was good for global order. The Arab Spring is much too far along for the United States to sit on the fence and continue supporting regional dictators. The consequences of the Arab Spring are still unpredictable, but whatever unfolds, it is in the United States’ interest to be on the side of change. Supporting the Arab Spring is the only position the U.S. can take if we want the results to strengthen global stability.
Global instability is a threat to U.S. national security because many nation-states we brand as “rogue nations” and “failed states” are run by unstable, undemocratic regimes that control access to deadly weapons of mass destruction, a relic from the Cold War. In the 21st century, the U.S. and its allies continue a costly hunt to secure these weapons, but emerging threats (such as cyber attacks, transnational criminal organizations, and non-state terrorism) make these operations difficult to execute. Libya is therefore a security concern for the U.S. because the regime has stockpiles of deadly weapons: shoulder-held rocket launchers and stores of poison gas. While it is not a security goal to occupy Libya (or pay for the occupation of Libya), it is a security goal for the United States (and the international community) to ensure that the deadly weapons in Libya are secured.
If intervention in Libya represented an opportunity for the U.S. to support regime change (which would support human rights and promote democracy), then involvement in the war should have been framed in that context and the president should have sought approval from Congress immediately after deploying U.S. forces to the region. This would have allowed them to use more kinetic force against Gaddafi’s military command and communications infrastructure. It is unfortunate that what took NATO six months of action could have taken the U.S. several weeks. But this is the price we will pay for a more balanced foreign policy. The upside to this approach is that our government saves a lot of money and American families will save many sons and daughters.
But if targeting Gaddafi was our goal, and I believe that it was after he failed to reconcile with the TNC, it was smart, although we should have been more honest about it. In every global conflict there are still “good guys” and “bad guys.” The people of Libya were being oppressed by a tyrant and they protested fearlessly for freedom. The United States possesses vast military superiority over the global system and has the ability to save millions of people across the world from suffering. We were right to intervene for humanitarian reasons and to assist with overthrowing the Gaddafi regime.
Ultimately, President Obama took the right approach to the war in Libya. He decisively engaged U.S. forces in a just and limited war at very low cost in lives and spending, and he kept his campaign promise to respect international law and work more closely with our allies to secure democracy and human rights abroad. Unfortunately, you don’t always get rewarded for doing the right thing.