Learning Lessons from the Splendid Little War in Libya

Rebels burn a poster of Gaddafi inside his compound

From Jeff Lightfoot, the New Atlanticist:  [T]he United States and its allies also made three grave mistakes in Libya that should be avoided in any future military operations. They were largely the product of insufficient political will, particularly in the United States, based on the fact that the intervention was not in pursuit of an essential national interest. The coalition should consider itself lucky to have overcome these mistakes, each of which history teaches can prove devastating.

First, the Obama administration failed to invest sufficient time or energy into building support for the operation among the American public or securing authorization for the operation by the US Congress. In doing so, the administration limited its ability to offer critical firepower in the later stages of the conflict without risking violating the War Powers Act or incurring the wrath of an already war-weary American public.

Second, the United States showed inconsistent and uncertain military and political leadership in the conflict, in part as a result of legal constraints caused by this lack of Congressional approval. The upside of the Obama administration strategy of ‘leading from behind’ is that it forced the allies to confront the need to maintain an autonomous European military capability. The downside is that the conflict revealed the depth of European military weakness and total dependence on the United States for command and control, surveillance, and heavy firepower from the air. The United States should insist on a robust leadership role in future military conflicts in which it participates, and will likely have no choice but to do so as its European allies continue to erode their militaries through savage defense cuts.

Third, the United States and a select few allies made a highly dangerous error by setting the ambitious political objective of regime change while ruling out the use of ground forces from the outset. In doing so, the coalition tied its hands and made itself overly reliant on air power, which has too often proven to be an insufficient tool for achieving political objectives and securing a sustainable peace. It is in fact likely that a key factor in the eventual victory of the rebels was the quiet introduction of CIA operatives and special forces from France, the UK and other countries in providing the rebels the capabilities and training needed to eventually seize control of the country from Gaddafi loyalists.

Every war teaches lessons for those willing to learn, whether it ends in victory, defeat, or stalemate. Proponents of a more assertive stance toward repressive dictators should take heart the Western role in supporting the victory of the rebels in Tripoli. But Libya should not be viewed as an easily replicable template for a new form of military intervention free of the messy realities of war like casualties and the need to generate and sustain public support for the operations at home. If the United States and its allies do not properly learn and apply the good and bad lessons from their flawed but ultimately successful campaign in Libya, they could easily find themselves engaged in a much more costly war in the future that is not so little and far less splendid.

Jeff Lightfoot is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program. Photo credit: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty.

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