If Iraq and Afghanistan were instructive lessons in the limits of military intervention, Libya demonstrates what intervention, given the right conditions and limited objectives, may accomplish.

The tragic assault on the US consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012 raised new doubts about the wisdom of the 2011 intervention in Libya. But while the attack put a question mark over Libya’s transition, it did not change the fact that the intervention had toppled Muammar Gadhafi and opened the door to a better future for the country. Without it, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent civilians would have died and the wave of rebellion sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa would likely have been slowed. It was a genuine if moderate success for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), for the United States, and most of all for Libya and the Libyan people. Success, however, was the result of no small amount of good fortune, and it could prove very hard to replicate, so before applying its lessons to other cases (above all Syria), it is critical to assess what was and was not accomplished in Libya, and why.

Another war?

In February 2011, when the conflict in Libya began, another US military intervention in the Middle East seemed a distant possibility at best. The drain of Iraq and Afghanistan was significant and Europe was consumed by a major financial crisis that threatened to upend its post-Cold War political and economic system. Libya was, moreover, only one of a number of crises dominating headlines across the turbulent Arab world, and some of the arguments for intervention there might have been applied equally to other states in the region and beyond. On 24 February, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech at West Point, citing President Dwight Eisenhower and warning that ‘any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined’. Two weeks later, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was still insisting NATO had ‘no intention to intervene in Libya’.

As the crisis intensified, however, the diplomatic and military context rapidly changed. The week of 7 March, Gadhafi unleashed a new counter-offensive that by the following weekend appeared near-certain to end in a massacre of civilians, and the Arab League endorsed rebel calls for a no-fly zone. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron kept the issue at the forefront of a very crowded news cycle that included revolutions elsewhere in the Middle East, the financial crisis in Europe, and, soon, a tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan. These shifts led to proponents within the US government of military action against the Libyan regime to gain the upper hand. On 15 March, the Obama administration changed course and sought a UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force to protect Libyan civilians from further depredation at Gadhafi’s hands.

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Christopher S. Chivvis is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation in Washington DC and an Adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington DC. This article draws on research for his forthcoming book, Toppling Qaddafi (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2012-January 2013

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