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Richard Falk: US “Misadventure” in Libya

Excerpt from international expert Richard Falk’s new book traces the history and effects of US “misadventure” in Libya.

The renowned international law specialist Richard Falk is the author of Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring, a collection of blog posts he wrote, 2011-2014, about all the Middle East except Palestine and Israel. (Those latter blog posts were collected in the recent volume Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope.) Chaos and Counterrevolution is forthcoming June 9 from Just World Books of Charlottesville, Va. This text is adapted from the introduction to the chapter on Libya.

Unlike Egypt, where, at the outset, I mostly felt I was sharing a transformative moment with exciting potential for the country, its people, and possibly the region – even the world – the turmoil in Libya never generated such hope. In Egypt, despite some early misgivings about overthrowing the ruler while leaving the regime in place, there was an infectious excitement that seemed to generate hope. In Libya, the uprising essentially unleashed a power struggle among unsavory alternatives for the country’s future. There were, to be sure, important individual and communal exceptions: Libyans bravely dedicated to human rights and democracy who had for many years been hounded and victimized by Qaddafi’s brutal minions. The blog posts in this chapter tried to capture my sense of foreboding about Libya’s future. This uprising began with a confrontation between the people and the ruler, then became a regime-changing NATO intervention that eliminated the autocratic Qaddafi entourage but also emboldened a variety of ethnic, communal, and regional tendencies to establish local power fiefdoms. The unhappy outcome has produced fragmentation and the absence of a state capable of exerting effective control over the country as a whole.

In this period of ferment, Libya became one more casualty of the Arab Spring’s destructive aftermath. At first, the opposition uprising seemed like a welcome democratic movement inspired by Tunisia and Egypt’s successes in ridding their countries of long-term dictatorships with a minimum of violence and bloodshed. The Libyan uprising was directed at the erratic, domineering Muammar Qaddafi, who had run Libya for several decades as essentially a one-man show. Yet the uprising quickly turned violent and, linked with European political agendas, became a bloody struggle between the regime, centered in Tripoli, and the insurgent leadership, especially associated with Benghazi. Without doubt, the fact that Libya was an oil-producing country increased pressures in Europe and the United States to avoid chaos or, worse from the perspective of the West, a radical Islamist takeover. While Egypt was a political prize, Libya seemed to be an economic and emotional prize, an opportunity to get rid of a leader who had long annoyed the West (even if the West also flirted with him most cynically from time to time).

Against this backdrop, the temptation to reshape Libya’s future became irresistible to the West. My blog posts expressed skepticism about validating the use of force with appeals to humanitarian motivations. Qaddafi’s modest military capabilities, Libya’s relatively small population, and the presumption that the overwhelming majority of Libyans opposed the regime encouraged this armed intervention. The issues posed a genuine dilemma. As the crisis deepened, it became clear that the civilian population of Benghazi was endangered by Qaddafi’s announced plan to crush the opposition, but also that the internationally proposed military operation to establish a “no-fly zone” was unlikely to protect them – and disguised a far more ambitious plot to achieve regime change. As the encounter escalated, Qaddafi foolishly employed fiery genocidal rhetoric to denounce his domestic adversaries in a manner that lent the intervention advocates humanitarian credibility and diverted attention from the real motivations, associated with strategic oil interests and containing Islamic forces. It should be noted that in Syria, where the humanitarian argument had greater force than in Libya, NATO did not seriously consider intervention, which probably reflects the absence of significant amounts of oil and logistical difficulties arising from Syria’s larger size, its more sophisticated military capabilities, and the Assad government’s considerable support from Syrians at home and abroad.

As the posts argue, American leaders were ambivalent at first about intervening in Libya, fearing being dragged into another war within a Muslim country. In 2011, the American public was weary, having failed in Afghanistan and Iraq despite enormous investment, important strategic objectives, and prolonged military operations lasting over a decade. President Obama was reluctant to accept responsibility for a major military operation in Libya. Turning to NATO and European allies to lead the military campaign and to the UN for a legitimating mandate followed quite naturally. But there were some obstacles on this path. First of all, how to get the backing of the UN Security Council given the likely opposition of Russia and China, both possessing a right of veto?

UN authorization became crucial. This gave rise to a hypocritical debate in the UN Security Council that sought to confuse the anti-intervention governments by promising to limit the use of force to the specific humanitarian danger facing the civilian population of Benghazi, with the United States “leading from behind.” The argument rested on the R2P (responsibility to protect) norm the Security Council had previously accepted as a dimension of the post-Kosovo UN conception of “peace and security,” avoiding the colonialist language of intervention that was not sufficiently redeemed by the adjective “humanitarian.” The haunting question was why humanitarian havoc was being allowed in Syria – and in Gaza – if the UN was operating under an R2P ethos.

The pro-intervention governments insisted that atrocity was looming in Benghazi that would reinforce an impression of UN impotence if nothing effective was done by way of protection. On this basis skeptical Security Council members were induced to abstain from the vote on authorization, giving the NATO intervention a weak UN imprimatur. As the early posts in this section argue, such an undertaking was unlikely to remain limited and, if expanded, was likely to anger the abstaining Security Council members, especially Russia and China, which would certainly have vetoed UN approval if they had been honestly informed of the operation’s intended scope. The NATO mission was dedicated from its inception to regime change; when it succeeded, Libya seemed firmly on the desired path of Western-oriented constitutional democracy.

This vindication was short-lived. A much less pleasant scenario played out on the ground after the intervention changed the political landscape in Tripoli. Libya’s governance became less state-centric, and depends to this day on the role of well-armed local militias, often struggling among themselves for ascendancy. The internal regional and ethnic tensions that had been suppressed during the Qaddafi era reemerged with fury to create anxieties that the country would split or be subject to long-term civil strife. As elsewhere in the region, Islamist forces were well-organized and seem determined to gain power by all available means. As of the end of 2014, the formal government seems inept and weak and chaos prevails. The situation is very unstable and no one knows what to expect. In recent weeks an Islamist coalition seized temporary control of governmental structures in Tripoli, but whether such authority will be sustained and spread beyond the capital city is highly uncertain.

The US role in Libya played out badly in American domestic politics. Republicans mocked the idea of “leading from behind,” treating it as an irresponsible abandonment of leadership, an expression of American decline for which Obama was blamed. After militants staged a lethal attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, killing the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, an angry political backlash against the Obama administration followed. Anger was especially directed at the State Department, which had described the attack in misleading ways at first and had failed to mention appeals from American officials in Libya to strengthen the security of the embassy in prior months.

The outcome a few years after the intervention is a devastating interplay between chaos and strife that has left the country hovering between two dismal fates: the complex struggles that have caused such suffering and devastation, as in Syria, and the complete breakdown of legitimate governing authority, as has been the fate of Somalia and Yemen. This misadventure should have induced a revisiting of intervention as an instrument of American foreign policy, but this has not happened.

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