Marc Lynch

What the Libya intervention achieved

  Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of Libya’s interim National Transitional Council, declared the end of the war and the liberation of Libya on Sunday following the controversial death of Moammar Qaddafi.  Judging by the tenor of discussion in the United States, you would think that this was an unmitigated disaster — a humiliating end to ...



Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of Libya’s interim National Transitional Council, declared the end of the war and the liberation of Libya on Sunday following the controversial death of Moammar Qaddafi.  Judging by the tenor of discussion in the United States, you would think that this was an unmitigated disaster — a humiliating end to an illegal war which prevented the UN from acting in Syria, massacred civilians, and opened the door to state failure, warlord violence, reprisals, and radical Islamist tyranny.  (Though at least we can be relieved that the rebels can now get their mack on.)  That’s quite a catalog of failure dominating the public discourse at a time when the official war has come to an end, and most Libyans are celebrating Qaddafi’s demise and planning a democratic transition towards a post-Qaddafi future. In fact, the intervention in Libya has been broadly successful and has helped to give Libyans the opportunity to build the country which they so deeply deserve. 

There’s every reason to be cautious about Libya’s future, of course.  There will be massive challenges facing the emerging new country, from independent militias to tribal and regional conflicts to the legacy of decades of the systematic destruction of independent civil society.  But nobody denies that.  Despite what Google tells me is 64,300,000 articles warning that "now comes the hard part in Libya," this is a straw man. I have heard almost nobody arguing the opposite — certainly not the White House, which consistently has warned that "We’re under no illusions — Libya will travel a long and winding road to full democracy. There will be difficult days ahead."

But for all those concerns, the intervention in Libya should be recognized as a success and real accomplishment for the international community.  The NATO intervention did save Libya’s protestors from a near-certain bloodbath in Benghazi. It did help Libyans free themselves from what was an extremely nasty, violent, and repressive regime.  It did not lead to the widely predicted quagmire, the partition of Libya, the collapse of the NTC, or massive regional conflagration.  It was fought under a real, if contestable, international legal mandate which enjoyed widespread Arab support. It did help to build — however imperfectly and selectively — an emerging international norm rejecting impunity for regimes which massacre their people.  Libya’s success did inspire Arab democracy protestors across the region. And it did not result in an unpopular, long-term American military occupation which it would have never seemed prudent to withdraw.

I want to just briefly touch here on a few of the most contentious issues in the current Libya debate.  I’m not particularly surprised or upset by how Qaddafi died.  The man did horrible things to Libyans for decades, unleashed a brutal war against his own people earlier this year, and after the fall of Tripoli was actively planning an insurgency.  Having him handed over to Libyan courts or to the ICC would have been nice, but I just don’t think that his murder tells us very much at all about whether or not the future Libya will be governed by the rule of law.  Nor, by the way, do I think that Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, or Sarkozy had him whacked to prevent him from spilling their secrets in court.  That’s silly. 

Nor am I particularly worried by Abdul Jalil’s comments about Sharia in his victory speech on Sunday.   Those remarks shocked the West, and upset liberal Arab supporters of the Libyan revolution.  But the idea that Abdul Jalil had with one speech established "the Islamic Republic of Libya" or delivered the new Libya into the hands of Islamic extremists is highly exaggerated. Neither Abdul Jalil nor the NTC as a whole is in any position to dictate Libya’s constitutional future. Indeed, the greater problem facing Libya is the weakness of central institutions and the urgent need to establish broad political legitimacy, state control over the multitude of armed groups, and reconciliation across the many societal and political divides.  I take his Sharia comments as a bid to bring together the Islamist fighters with other political trends.  There is a long, hotly contested political transition to come. Abdul Jalil’s comments are only one of the opening bids, not the final word.  

I also do not agree that NATO’s loose interpretation of its mandate in Libya doomed the prospects for a UN intervention in Syria.  For that to be true, there would have needed to be some plausible prospect of an intervention in Syria to have been thwarted.  There wasn’t. At best, the Libya precedent has offered an excuse for Russia and China to oppose UN action, but it wasn’t the cause.  There’s no question that many people at the UN and the international community were distressed by how NATO stretched its legal mandate during the course of the war.  But the truth is, there has never been an appetite at the UN — or in Washington — for a military intervention in Syria, regardless of the Libyan example. 

The outrage over Bashar al-Asad’s violent onslaught against his opponents is real, and a growing regional and international consensus condemns his regime.  Some Syrian opposition figures are changing their minds about refusing international intervention.  But the obstacles to any such intervention remain overwhelming.  The Syrian opposition controls no territory, can not confidently claim the support of a majority of the Syrian population, and until recently has refused to call for international intervention.  Syria’s terrain, alliances and location make for a radically different strategic environment than Libya’s, and everyone recognizes that a No-Fly Zone in the Syrian case would immediately mean a larger-scale military intervention which nobody wants.  The difficulties posed by Syria’s bloodbath are real, then, and the policy choices excruciating.  But Libya’s not the reason.

More broadly, I disagree with the many varieties of argument condemning the Libyan intervention as hypocritical or as actually undermining the norms against impunity.  It’s obviously true that the US, UN and international community have not applied the same response to a variety of other countries that they did to Libya. But the inability to prevent all atrocities is not a reason to avoid preventing one when the opportunity presents itself. Without the Libyan precedent the possibility of an intervention in Syria would not have even been considered. The development of a norm against impunity for violence against civilians won’t be accomplished overnight or automatically be applied universally.  But I believe that the Libyan intervention did prevent an imminent atrocity and could be one important step in building that norm. 

What about demonstration and diffusion effects?  Here, the record is admittedly mixed.  It’s very clear that protest movements around the Arab world did follow the Libyan case closely, taking inspiration at key moments such as the beginning of the NATO campaign and the fall of Tripoli.  We have quite a lot of evidence of Yemeni or Syrian protestors ramping up their efforts at such moments, just as we saw such demonstration effects powerfully mattering across the entire region after the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak. It would be unreasonable to demand that such movements win, or their regimes fall, for the demonstration effects to be judged real — too many other factors are in play in each case.  The attention to Libya across the region and the explicit invocation of Libyan events by protestors strikes me as sufficient evidence.  This is precisely why the U.S. has been forced to take such pains to publicly warn Syrian protestors not to expect a comparable intervention. At the same time, the fact that the war dragged on for so long did drain some of the momentum that the intervention might otherwise have produced, and there has been a small but significant backlash among some on the Arab left against the role of NATO, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

As for regimes, it’s probably true that some have taken Qaddafi’s demise as reason to dig in their heels.  I can certainly imagine Bashar al-Asad or Ali Abdullah Saleh reading the lessons of Libya as "don’t lose." But once again, I’ve seen very little evidence that either leader would have behaved more gently towards his people or surrendered power more easily had Qaddafi’s fate been otherwise.  They did not need Libya to want to cling to power.  The real test for the demonstration effect on other dictators will come now — not choices by leaders already deeply implicated in violent struggles against their people, with little left to lose, but future leaders facing a choice as to whether to resort to violence.  This remains very much an open question. 

I do worry about the evidence of reprisal killings against Qaddafi loyalists and of human rights abuses by the NTC.  At the same time, I recall the repressive conditions of pre-revolution Libya and Qaddafi’s extreme violence over the course of the war.  I am still haunted by the mass graves, by the journalist’s body discovered in the desert with his fingers cut off, by the long years of systematic violence, repression, and abuse by a despotic and arbitrary regime.  It is important for the new Libya to be consistently and systematically held to account – kudos to Human Rights Watch for staying on the issues.  It is essential that Libya develop robust civil institutions and the rule of law on its road to a democratic transition.  That is a major challenge and will be key to the long-term future of the new Libya.  That it hasn’t been achieved in a few weeks is not, however, a terrible surprise.  

One final point: We, and they, are extremely fortunate that Libya’s streets aren’t currently being patrolled by tens of thousands of Western troops, which it would never seem prudent to withdraw.  The decision to reject calls for U.S. troops to get involved directly was a wise one for many, many reasons.  

The international intervention in Libya wasn’t perfect, by any means.  But the criticisms now flooding the public debate strike me as excessive.  The intervention really was the success it appeared to be. It will only be complete, of course, if the new Libyan leadership manages to consolidate its authority, establishes effective institutions, and then oversees a real transition to democratic government.   And now’s the time for the international community to work with Libyans to help them achieve that goal. 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

Tag: Libya