Libya’s descent into chaos following the ouster and killing of its longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi has led to widespread condemnation of America and its NATO allies for their role in the country’s destabilization. That criticism is partly the reason why the West is extremely reluctant to intervene anywhere nowadays, regardless of the level of humanitarian suffering. Syria readily comes to mind. This stance, if it endures, will have serious implications for oppressed people around the world. That is why it is important to revisit some of the events leading up to the NATO intervention in Libya to see if the West does indeed deserve the blame it has received.
A lot has certainly gone wrong in Libya, and the critics are right to question the wisdom of some of the actions—and inactions—that brought the country to its current state. But their apparent suggestion that life would be well in Libya today, had the West not intervened there, warrants rigorous scrutiny.
In the wake of the Arab Spring that began in early 2011, tens of thousands of ordinary Libyans had been protesting for weeks against Gaddafi’s repressive rule. On Gaddafi’s orders, the Libyan military responded with brutal force, killing hundreds of demonstrators. What precipitated the NATO intervention was the dictator’s threatened assault on Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and a rebel stronghold. There were warnings that if Libyan government forces were allowed to reach the city, an estimated half a million people could be killed. Similar threats against other Libyan cities had earlier prompted the Arab League to call on the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over the country.
NATO began its air strikes following passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which, among other things, authorized the use of all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack in Libya, including Benghazi. The West thus did not act on its own in Libya, as it is often made to sound by some critics.
There have been conflicting opinions as to whether Gaddafi would have had his military slaughter hundreds of thousands in Benghazi as threatened, or was merely bluffing. The only way to know the truth would have been to wait for further developments. But such a wait-and-see approach can sometimes result in disasters of epic proportions for some defenseless people.
During the Bosnian civil war in the early 1990s, inadequate protection by UN peacekeepers reportedly led to the Srebrenica massacre in which, over a three-day period in 1995, about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed by Bosnian Serb forces with the backing of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian government. Mothers and wives were forced to look on helplessly as their sons and husbands were taken in front of them to be murdered. It is quite difficult to imagine that anyone who has seen the anguished looks on the faces of those women could argue in favor of inaction in the presence of such imminent threats.
In a 2016 article in The Atlantic, Dominic Tierney wrote that “There is no point in toppling a tyrant if the result is anarchy.” He was discussing the shortsightedness of America’s unwillingness to get involved in nation-building following regime changes that it helps to engineer in totalitarian countries. Tierney’s point is a fair one to make, but how much responsibility do America, the West in general, and other major powers like Russia actually have to stay and help countries get back on their feet after such interventions? The answer is two-pronged, in my view.
There are generally two types of national leaders. In the first category are those whose powers derive from free and fair elections. They earn the right to set and implement their policies, and even when large segments of their populations oppose some of their actions, the global consensus is that such leaders should be allowed to serve their terms of office. The second group consists of dictators like Gaddafi who seize power either through military coups or sham elections. They lack legitimacy as a result, and are often loved by few within their national borders. But they hold on steadfastly to power, and are the ones who tend to use brutal means to quash all forms of dissent.
I have heard many people here in the West say that their countries have no business helping to overthrow such dictators, and that the citizens of those countries are responsible for ridding themselves of leaders they don’t like. If only that were easy to do—or even possible.
Almost every nation on earth has engaged in some form of liberation struggle at some point in its history. The outcomes of such struggles depend on many factors, but critically important are the types of weaponry that the sides to a conflict use. Several years ago, I visited Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the site of one of the most important battles in the American Revolutionary War. As I watched reenactments of the battles between the American Continental Army and British forces, I was struck by the similarity of the weapons—muskets, rifles, bayonets and cannons—that both sides used during the war. Likewise, the Union and Confederate armies were quite evenly matched in terms of munitions during the American Civil War, as I learned during a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania.
The picture is entirely different nowadays. In places like Libya and Syria, governments can deploy their air forces to drop powerful bombs on rebel forces and civilians, or use armored tanks to crush their opponents who, at best, have only rifles and cannons at their disposal. Occasional attempts to even the field somewhat, such as the recent U.S. Senate vote to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, rarely make a difference because there are almost always alternate sources of weapons for those who control the machineries of state.
It is because of this glaring mismatch in fighting capability that NATO countries, who are the sellers of weapons to dictators like Gaddafi, bear some responsibility to step in and protect defenseless civilians when necessary. In essence, they must return to help clean up messes they themselves facilitated.
Assigning blame for the chaotic and violent atmospheres that seem to follow each recent intervention is trickier. President Obama is said to have faulted the entrenched tribalism of Libyan society, and the failure of NATO countries to help with institutional setups following Gaddafi’s ouster, for the debacle in Libya. To ensure that interventions don’t become wasted efforts, it does make sense for America and its allies to maintain some presence on the ground to bring about the stability required for peace to endure—a prerequisite for sustained socio-economic progress.
That may be asking a bit too much, however. Judging by the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, where America has spent untold billions of dollars over nearly two decades in operations that have cost the lives of thousands of its troops, and even more lives of soldiers and civilians in those countries, it is natural to expect that American voters will at some point develop serious allergy to interventions. That seems to be happening, not only here in America, but elsewhere in the Western world. For that reason, the conversation needs to start shifting to what liberated peoples can and should do themselves to keep their societies functioning after their despotic rulers are gone. Globally, there is a rising tendency toward authoritarianism. Freedom-loving people around the world must ensure that this disillusionment with interventions doesn’t end up encouraging even more brutal dictatorships.
Ideally, nations should be left alone to manage their own internal affairs. Unfortunately, political realities make it necessary at times for sovereignty to be violated. Those who vehemently oppose interventions should always remember the victims of Srebrenica, and those of similar mass atrocities.