NATO’s Intervention in Libya, Three Years On: Success or Failure?

by Raphael Mimoun

Three years ago, on October 20, 2011, rebel fighters killed Libyan despot Muammar Gadhafi. The convoy evacuating the “guide of the revolution” from a civil war he was losing had just been hit by French and American airstrikes. Gadhafi’s death was supposed to end eight months of bloody fighting, but instead marked the prelude to Libya’s disintegration—disintegration that Western powers have largely been responsible for.

As a wave of protests against corruption and authoritarianism swept the Arab world, Libya’s forty-year dictatorship had no reason to be spared. The quick militarization of the rebellion and subsequent descent into armed conflict triggered concerns, particularly in the West, of impending massacres. Led by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the international community formed a coalition to prevent any bloodbath. But while the UN mandate authorizing the intervention explicitly stated that its purpose was the protection of civilians, the bias of the coalition quickly became evident: though rebel forces were repeatedly accused of human rights violations, notably by Amnesty International, coalition airstrikes targeted exclusively loyalist forces, including facilities that did not directly threaten civilian populations. The lack of effort to reach a ceasefire and a political solution to the conflict, the provision of weapons, cash, and military advisers to the insurgents, and the bombing of Gadhafi’s convoy were further indications that the coalition’s objective was not to protect civilians but rather to overthrow the Gadhafi regime. The consequences of the intervention have been dramatic. First, the entire region was destabilized to an unprecedented degree. Criminal and terrorist groups in the Sahel and Sahara acquired considerable power, boosted by military equipment looted from regime stockpiles or diverted from coalition shipment. Jihadist groups terrorized northern Mali for months until France’s military intervention. But Libya itself has paid the highest price for the intervention’s recklessness. Dozens of armed militias, whether Islamist or “liberal,” partisans of a federal or a centralized state, or from the rival towns of Zintan or Misrata, now fight for control of political institutions and strategic infrastructures—airports and oil facilities in particular. Two thousand and fourteen Libya is a failed state. The tribal and fragmented nature of Libyan society and the lack of democratic experience suggest that any transition to democracy would have been long and difficult. Yet Western intervention in a civil war that should have been resolved politically, not militarily, condemned this transition before it was even initiated.

Second, the quick and almost unconditional support to Libyan rebels sent an unfortunate message to other oppressed populations, that armed violence against an authoritarian regime is legitimate and can potentially lead to Western military support—despite the fact that civil disobedience and peaceful resistance have proved considerably more effective to topple a dictator, and violent insurgencies cause infinitely more suffering and destruction. International backing for violent movements is especially counterproductive given the low likelihood of these rebellions to produce functioning democracies. Indeed, the best armed and most violent groups, not the most legitimate or popular, assume a rebellion’s leadership and in victory gain power. The use of violence to resolve political conflicts is also likely to become institutionalized at the end of the war, producing a new regime that represses dissent and exercises power through terror. By contrast, nonviolent campaigns promote a culture of dialogue, compromise, and cooperation among factions, laying the foundation for future political pluralism. If Western powers truly seek to support democratic transitions, they must refrain from spectacular but counterproductive support to armed insurgencies, and instead provide political, diplomatic, and financial cover to nonviolent movements over time.

Finally, the Libyan war marked a potentially lethal weakening of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. R2P was severely damaged by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, perceived by a majority of states as illegal and illegitimate. With a broad consensus on the need to intervene, however, including endorsements by the Arab League, the African Union, and the Islamic Cooperation Organization, as well as Security Council authorization, Libya represented an unprecedented opportunity to restore the credibility of benevolent interventionism. In reality, the exact opposite was achieved. Russia and China, who had abstained from vetoing the intervention despite deep attachment to the principle of non-interference, felt cheated and are now likely to oppose new interventions advanced for the protection of civilians. More worrying still, emerging powers such as India, Brazil, and South Africa, not inherently opposed to humanitarian intervention but fearful of its misapplication, felt profoundly deceived by the way the coalition manipulated the Security Council resolution to promote regime change. Future attempts to implement R2P will face far more tenuous opposition.

While NATO’s operation in Libya is often viewed as highly successful, any assessment of its long-term consequences is overwhelmingly negative. To be sure, Western powers are not the only ones to blame. Other members of the coalition also carry great responsibilities, notably the Gulf monarchies that flooded Libya with weapons and today fight a proxy war to influence the country’s political future. However, it is France, the United Kingdom, and the United States that opened Pandora’s box by calling for an intervention, and they must now draw the lessons from it.

About the Author


Raphael is a 2014 graduate of the Fletcher School. He has lived in France, Israel, Germany, and the United States and has extensively studied and researched international relations. Raphael’s fields of expertise include Middle-Eastern affairs, international conflicts, strategic nonviolence, and democratization.

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