Sixth Anniversary of the US-Libya Intervention: A Model for the Future

Six years ago on March 19, 2011, the United States started its military intervention in Libya. In 2009, President Obama, in his inauguration speech, addressed the world’s dictators asking them to “unclench their fist” and said  that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.” This was not just a statement by the Democrat president; it was a renewed commitment from the leader of the free world. In 2005, President George W. Bush in his second inauguration speech also said, to those living under tyranny that “… the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” To the people living under dictatorships, these promises matter.

In February 2011, while Qaddafi mounted a military campaign to regain control over cities, Libyans questioned whether the United States would honor its traditional commitment to advancing democracy and human rights. This was not just a political question; it was a question that thousands of lives depended on. Interestingly, that year Donald Trump demanded, in a video blog, that the US should “… immediately go into Libya, knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically, very effectively, and save the lives.” And that was what exactly happened.

The US, UK, and France launched Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 19, 2011 to strike and halt the advance of Qaddafi forces against the opposition. This swift action saved thousands of lives in Benghazi and in other cities. Trump, after initially supporting the intervention, said during the 2016 presidential campaign that “we would be so much better off if Qaddafi would be in charge right now.” However, this intervention was indeed a success, and a model for future interventions.

It was the right thing to do. Unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was the people who had decided to overthrow Qaddafi; it was not the US acting on a whim for regime-change. The US did not act alone, but intervened within a coalition of nations, including Arab countries, mandated to protect civilians by resolutions from both the UN Security Council and the Arab League. The alternative to the Qaddafi regime was clear; the opposition, including the Islamists, exiled opposition, and defected regime government officials, were unified behind an alternative leadership. The military intervention was short and set within a specific scope. All these policy elements made this international military intervention a success.

With NATO air coverage, five months later the rebel groups liberated Tripoli. By October, rebel forces captured and shortly after killed Qaddafi. Days later in Benghazi, new rulers of Libya declared the country free and independent ending the military intervention. It was also the beginning of the most bitter and violent phases in Libyan history, and ongoing to this day.

The country is now a spiral of chaos, crime, corruption, and civil war. Terrorist groups exploited the power vacuum to expand their operations to Libya. Protests, corruption, and incompetence paralyzed government institutions. Freedom fighters became warlords with considerable influence and wealth. Now the country is divided between two competing governments, and going through an unprecedented economic crisis. Last year, President Obama said his biggest regret is that he did not plan for the day after toppling Qaddafi.

Yet this chaos was inevitable. Even if Qaddafi had died peacefully in a warm bed, surrounded by his family and supporters, there still would have been a conflict. Qaddafi had no official government or succession plan for the next ranking official. He did not groom an heir. As he empowered his sons to take different military and civilian roles, he kept them in conflict. Opposing camps of reformists and traditional revolutionaries then lined up behind different siblings. Qaddafi maintained regional and tribal tensions throughout the decades of his rule so only he can be the pivot point of stability in Libya. The crisis in Libya now is not a random development of events; this is what dictators preemptively install as a defensive mechanism to remain in power.   

Immediately after toppling Qaddafi, Libya ran fair and transparent elections with several national and local elections. But transition to democracy requires more than toppling dictators and running elections; it needs accountable and effective institutions that are capable of responding to the people’ aspirations. Without the traditional tools of a tyrant, government officials could not steer this ineffective bureaucracy to implement transformational policies.

Countries in transition to democracy are challenged by the need to compress centuries of natural political development processes into policies to implement within a few years. Consider South Sudan which also gained independence in 2011, and supported by the US since 2014 with more than $2 billion in total aid. It also faced the same fate of civil war, economic collapse, and an uncontrollable spread of weapons. There was no international military intervention in South Sudan but it also failed and is now facing a famine. Similar challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and other transitional countries suggest that it is not interventions that ignite chaos but the fact that the international community still does not know how to build states after regime change.

Or, rather they do not know how to build states fast enough. According to the World Bank, it took the 20 fastest-reforming countries an average of 37 years to increase the effectiveness of their governments, 17 years to get the military out of politics, 20 years to achieve acceptable bureaucratic quality, 41 years to establish rule of law, and 27 years to bring corruption under control. Libya is labeled as a policy mistake because it could not achieve all of this in six years.

In his first inauguration speech, President Trump vowed to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.” I hope he will be advised that supporting transitional democracies in the Middle East is the only sustainable approach to counter extremism at its roots. Libyans are still committed to democracy, and still need the support of its international partners to end the civil war, build government institutions, fight extremist groups, and reform its economy.

Nedal M. Swehli is the executive manager of Diwan Marketing Research, a public opinion research firm based in Libya.

Image: Photo: A rebel fighter looks at a burning vehicle belonging forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. European and U.S. forces unleashed warplanes and cruise missiles against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces in the biggest Western military intervention in the Arab world since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic