The debate over whether the Libyan intervention was justified should take as its starting point the imponderables facing decision-makers in March 2011.

State collapse, never-ending conflicts between ever-changing alliances of armed groups, the expansion of the Islamic State: six years after the NATO-led intervention in Libya, some claim to have seen it all coming. It is a highly politicised debate, fuelled not least by the participation of Hillary Clinton, the leading proponent of intervention in 2011, in the 2016 US presidential election.1 Three arguments are common. Firstly, some say the decision to intervene was made in ignorance of social realities in Libya, and without a plan for the post-Gadhafi era. For decades, Muammar Gadhafi’s iron rule had checked tensions that inevitably escalated after state institutions and security forces disintegrated with his regime’s demise.2 Secondly, it is argued that the West abandoned Libya after the intervention and stood by as its elected bodies were overpowered by rival militias.3 Thirdly, power-hungry, violent Islamist groups are sometimes blamed for derailing the transition.4 

The latter two points can be swiftly dealt with. There was no alternative to the West’s withdrawal after the intervention. An international stabilisation mission was not a realistic option either in 2011 or thereafter, since it would have been widely rejected by Libyans and thereby hastened the collapse of the political process. Indeed, Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) consistently rejected proposals for such a mission in the intervention’s final days. Western governments did attempt to provide assistance, particularly on security. These attempts failed because successive transitional governments were paralysed by fierce rivalries between representatives of political forces, cities and militias within the state institutions themselves.5 These governments were in no position even to try to rebuild unified structures in the security sector, hence there was nothing for the West to support.

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Wolfram Lacher is an Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, and conducts regular field research in Libya.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

April–May 2017

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