In a widely read interview in The Atlantic, among the many issues that President Obama addressed was his view on what went wrong in the NATO led intervention in Libya. With respect to the approach taken for undertaking the Libyan intervention, he said ‘We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion—which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.’
Indeed, Libya has disintegrated beyond recognition and today the country endures, arguably, far more destruction and human suffering than what it faced under Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule.
Explaining what went wrong, Obama, rightly, blames Libya’s descent into abyss on the lack of follow up. On this he in particular puts the responsibility on the members of the coalition notably France and the UK. True enough, those countries who took did not envisage their intervention to go beyond and above ending Ghaddafi’s rule. There was no plan or strategy as to what happened after and as a follow up to the military intervention. With Ghaddafi’s removal and the dismantling of his regime, the only entity that held Libya together also disappeared. No unified political movement or agreed transitional framework was emerged to fill the huge political and security vacuum that Ghaddafi’s demise left.
As in Iraq, the lesson from Libya is it is much more easier to remove a regime than bring about a functioning and legitimate replacement. Even more importantly, regime change through external intervention in fragile or long enduring authoritarian countries tends to precipitate the disintegration of the country and can do more harm than good.
From a perspective of the responsibility to protect, the failure of the intervention was not limited to the absence of a plan for post-conflict reconstruction. It also involves at least two other important lessons.
First is the need for limiting the military action to the terms of protecting civilians as specified in the resolution authorizing the action. In implementing the terms of Resolution 1973’s objective of ‘protection of civilians and civilian populated areas’, NATO went further and pursued the objective of overthrowing Ghaddafi. In an open letter dated 15 April 2011, the US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, stated that ‘it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power’. The problem with pursuing regime change was not only that it was contrary to international legality but also, and on that account, results in destructive outcomes that defeat the objectives of protection of civilians as developments in Libya illustrated.
The situation revealed that the UN does not have an effective monitoring and accountability mechanism for ensuring that UNSC resolutions are executed without exceeding the terms and objectives of the resolutions mandating military action.
Second is the need to give diplomatic and/or political processes and hence the voice of all local political forces adequate and genuine chance to lead the effort for resolving the crisis and succeed. NATO countries and their allies were determined to use military means as the only solution to the crisis. They left no room for giving diplomacy a chance. Thus, the opportunities that arose when the Libyan government declared its willingness for ceasefire and negotiated settlement were not adequately explored. Instead, the government’s declarations of ceasefire and willingness for negotiation were dismissed as a deliberate ploy by Ghaddafi to buy time and shield himself from the escalating military assault targeting him and his government. By May 2011, the AU even managed to secure Ghaddafi’s commitment that he would not be part of the negotiation for the formation of a new government and of the government to be formed.
In this regard, Obama’s admission of the failure of NATO’s intervention in Libya vindicates the position that the AU adopted at the time both about exhaustion of the diplomatic avenue and the perils the military campaign posed.
It is not merely the use of military force in the particular setting that made the Libyan intervention, to use the language from The Atlantic, the ‘stupid shit’ that it has turned out to be. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, on account of the fact that the intervention did not give space for diplomatic means of resolving the crisis and breached legality by pursuing an agenda not mandated in the resolution that authorized the intervention.