About NATO’s Mistakes in Libya

NATO’s intervention in Libya favoured the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Would it have been better if the alliance had kept still?

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The current development in Libya causes political, diplomatic and journalistic pessimism, as the North African country in immediate vicinity to the European Union is about to turn into a safe haven for terrorist activities due to the beginning of another civil war in 2014. Some people would definitely argue that the previous war (from 2011 to 2012) that caused the overthrow of long-term dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi merely paused in 2012 and 2013. Others identify Libya as a failed state. Definitely true is, however, that the central government shows a lack of power. And yet others, like Alan J. Kuperman in Foreign Affairs (Mar./Apr. 2015), argue that it would have been better if NATO would not have invaded Libya in the first place. Instead, Mr. Qaddafi should have been left in power because this would have been a better way to fulfil the needs of the alliance’s mandate, namely the Responsibility to protect. (R2P; see Kuperman 2015, p. 67) When I read this article, I was a bit perplex. In what way would this alternative have been better? As I started to think through this complex topic, I realised that Mr. Kuperman was not wrong, neither was he, from my point of view, absolutely right.

Two Norwegian F-16's Libya 2011

Qaddafi Overthrown

Many people would argue that the killing of Mr. Qaddafi marks the inception of all of Libya’s current problems. To begin with, the pre-war Qaddafi was an ally to the West and especially to the United States in combating terrorism. Therefore, it was a bit surprising that NATO invaded Libya to assist the rebels in overthrowing this dictator. Mr. Kuperman argues that the West acted against its own interests since there were no atrocities to be expected from the troops of the regime at all, which served as justification for the intervention. (see Kuperman 2015, p. 70 – 72) Instead, when Qaddafi got shot dead, the problems of the mediterranean country continued (or just began) as the militias which fought in the civil war refused to hand over their weapons to the new central government. As a result, the fighting started again but international media mostly neglected the conflict, except for the Egyptian bombings of IS-affiliated groups.1 (The existence of IS-affiliated groups beyond Iraq and Syria, especially in Libya, besides the terrorist attacks in Tunis2 and Sana’a3, brings up the very interesting question whether the so-called Islamic State is able to replace or has already replaced al-Qaida which had become some sort of label after 9/11.) However, by measuring the alliance’s mission according to the standards of protecting lives, averting a humanitarian disaster, and preventing the formation and rise of jihadi groups, it definitely failed. Between 2011 and 2015, Libya turned into an unstable country torn by civil war, approximately 11,000 lives were lost (according to Kuperman 2015, p. 70 – 72), and Libya’s transition towards democracy is not even worth mentioning. Instead, it effectively became a safe haven for terrorists who threaten mainly the European Union additionally to the threats posed by the Syrian Civil War and the war in Eastern Ukraine.

Nevertheless, I do have to put the presumed responsibility of NATO for the creation of a terroristic safe haven or a terroristic hatchery seriously in question. Indeed, the alliance failed to prevent this current development but this does not necessarily mean that it is exclusively responsible and the new central government of Libya is not. But one has to acknowledge the facts; NATO intervened and therefore caused the failure of the Libyan state since it depended on the person of Mr. Qaddafi, as I will argue later on. For Mr. Kuperman, this is the most crucial mistake made in Libya. Additionally, he puts the reason why the alliance intervened in the first place in question as, in his point of view, Mr. Qaddafi would not have punished the Libyan population for revolting against his dictatorship. (ibid.) But this might not be so sure as Mr. Kuperman depicts it. Who can tell whether the regime would have done this or that, whether the regime would have prosecuted or even executed the insurgents? Additionally, I do not believe that it would have been better for the Libyan people if Qaddafi would have remained in power, as Mr. Kuperman argues. He would not have had a future in the Libyan political system but his son, Saif al-Islam, who has had a reformist agenda, would have had become the new leader of the Libyan government. But did not the son of the Syrian long-term dictator Hafiz al-Asad, Bashar, also had a reformist agenda? Was he not the greatest hope for democratic transition in Syria?

Therefore, I tend to believe that NATO’s intervention was overall ethically correct (as I will argue later on), but as an observer of international affairs it is hard to believe that any policy approach follows ethic guidelines. Whichever reason the alliance might have had, there were two mistakes that were crucial to the failure of the mission: The intervention came too late and it did not last long enough for a effective transition to peace and democracy. Assistance in disarming the militias and to secure the inclusive political process would have been necessary.

Safe Haven & Civil War

First of all, one has to look back into the past to understand the current developments in Libya. When Mr. Qaddafi came into power, he „…distrusted institutions and sought to dismantle every union and club“, as Matar puts it4. The lack of institutions after the downfall of Mr. Qaddafi and the failure of various groups to agree on a system of parliamentary elections and parliamentary representation resulted in Libya breaking apart. Unlike Tunisia, which could rely on its trade unions and the military, the Libyan dictator outweighed a variety of interests of Arab tribes and relied on his own elite troop. But no one could seriously say whether Libya would not have collapsed (or, more generally spoken, in what way Libya would have evolved) if Mr. Qaddafi would have let some political institutions grow stronger. But speculating about such alternatives is quite pointless. I want to show that the current development in Libya depended on the one hand on the long-term development of the political system under Mr. Qaddafi, and on the other hand on the events in the aftermath of the downfall of his very same person. I do think that the failure of the new Libyan government to disarm the militias that refused to hand over their weapons voluntarily was more crucial to the current developments than NATO’s invasion in the first place.

However, one has to admit thoroughly that NATO’s intervention in Libya led to the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi and therefore to the indirect devolution of Libya into a failed state. Taking the strict Libyan regime and the prevention of the formation of organisations of the civil society under consideration, clearly everything in Libya depended on the regime itself. Meaning: The downfall of Mr. Qaddafi caused the collapse of the regime and therefore of nearly every form of central governmental organisation. Therefore one could definitely hold NATO responsible for the now emerging safe haven in Libya since the alliance caused the overthrow of Mr. Qaddafi. But I tend to believe, unlike Mr. Kuperman (see Kuperman 2015, p. 77), that the intervention in Libya was the correct decision. Although the regime was about to win the war, NATO successfully assisted the Libyan revolution to oust Qaddafi but failed to assist government and civil society in the second place. The Libyan state unsuccessfully attempted to disarm the militias which tried to secure a strong position in the political transition – some of them pro-Qaddafi, others islamist movements – which led to wide-spread violence. As I already mentioned, the Libyan state failed in disarming those groups and it was a mistake that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation did not help the new central government to achieve this goal. This would have made it a lot easier, for example for UNSMIL, to push the political process forward.

On November 1st 2011, Kirkpatrick noted in the New York Times5 that „[m]any of the local militia leaders who helped topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi are abandoning a pledge to give up their weapons and now say they intend to preserve their autonomy and influence political decisions as ’guardians of the revolution.’” The militias clearly came to this decision due to their wish of playing a strong role within the political process which started in the Post-Qaddafi Libya. In fact, the National Transitional Council, which handed over power to the newly elected assembly on August 8th, 2012, faced the choice to integrate the militias into the political process or to fight them6, but according to the concept of the monopoly over force by Weber the state (or its government) cannot accept endeavours to create alternative sources of power. Which means that the refusal of the militias to hand over their weapons or to become a legal part of the Libyan Armed Forces created a legal vacuum. Conflicts between the government and various militias on the one hand and among militias themselves seem to have been nearly inevitable.

One has to the acknowledge the fact that this has been the reason for or at least the context in which the Operation Dignity against the Islamist-dominated General National Congress in Tripoli and against islamist militias in Benghazi took place. Afterwards, only 18% of the Libyan voters participated in the elections to the Council of Deputies, which should form a new government. Unsurprisingly, the ousted islamist parties rejected the outcome of those elections. At least the situation could have been labelled as tight. But the point is that the unstable situation in which no one has a monopoly over power and in which conflicts among the militias themselves occur on a daily basis opens space to terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State or Da’esh, as many Arabs refer to this group. As I already noted, this may not be the same Islamic State the United States and its allies fight in Iraq and Syria but might be an al-Qaida-affiliated group which re-labelled itself. If this is true, it should not surprise anyone, regarding the military achievements of this group in Iraq and Syria.

Qaddafi’s Rule

Juan Cole describes the rule of Mr. Qaddafi as an Arab form of Stalinism: Total control over the society, educational institutions such as libraries or universities, and the military. (see Cole 2014, p. 228) Qaddafi himself primarily relied on his elite troops, called the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Those troops paralysed the Libyan society for a long time. Cole depicts the Qaddafi era as follows:

„A couple of days later, Khaled kindly took me to meet the historian and physician Muhammad al-Mufti. […] The dapper, gentlemanly al-Mufti received us in his book-lined study. As I looked at the shelves and shelves of books, I thought of the story the new head of the National Library in Benghazi told me. He said that in the early 1980s Qaddafi appointed a general to run the library. The man was dismissive of books. ’All we need,’ he declared, ’is the Green Book.’“ (Cole 2014, p. 230)

It is true that NATO’s intervention in Libya backfired in terms of protection of civilians because, first of all, the regime was about to win, which might have ended the war quite early, and secondly, the Libyan state extraordinarily depended on the person of Muammar Qaddafi. As a result, many weapons circulated and the militias did not lack neither of ammunition nor of weaponry. This is the foremost reason for the failure of NATO in terms of responsibility to protect.


To deal with the Libyan Civil War and its consequences is a very difficult topic. I do understand Mr. Kuperman’s argumentation – I totally agree with his point of view that NATO would have fulfilled its responsibility to protect better if Libya would not have devolved into a failed state. But I disagree with Mr. Kuperman when he says NATO should not have intervened at all. I think that the devolution of Libya into a failed state could have been prevented with three very different policy approaches: The alliance should have either intervened earlier, longer and more massively or not at all.

I doubt that the noticeable militarisation of the whole country would have taken place the way it did, if NATO would have intervened earlier. The regime would not have been about to win, the rebel forces might have remained more unified which means that NATO could have prevented the fragmentation that took place during the revolution which poses a massive problem today. If the alliance would have intervened with comprehensive force and stayed longer, it could have assisted the Libyan central government to either disarm the militias or to integrate them into the Libyan Armed Forces. And, finally, if NATO would not have intervened at all, Mr. Qaddafi probably would have stayed the ruler of the mediterranean country. Would he have had the revolutionisers prosecuted or even executed? Would his army have made an example of the revolutionisers for others? Mr. Kuperman thinks he would not have done such things but I am not that sure.


1 BBC (2015): Egypt bombs IS in Libya after beheadings video: http://m.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31483631

2 Botelho, Greg/Mullen, Jethro (2015): ISIS apparently claims responsibility for Tunisia museum attack; 9 arrested, under: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/19/africa/tunisia-museum-attack/

3 Black, Ian (2015): Yemen suicide bombings leave over 130 dead after mosques targeted, under: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/20/isis-claims-mosque-suicide-bombing-as-its-first-atrocity-in-yemen

4 Matar, Hisham (2011): Libyans are just as hungry as Tunisians, under: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/jan/21/libyans-are-as-hungry-as-tunisians

5 Kirkpatrick, David D. (2011): In Libya, Fighting May Outlast the Revolution, under: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/world/africa/in-libya-the-fighting-may-outlast-the-revolution.html?_r=0

6 Al-Jazeera (2012): Libyan forces raid militia outposts. Libya’s newly-elected president says all militias must come under government authority or disband, under: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/09/2012923221126439787.html

Cole, Juan (2014): The New Arabs. How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East. New York, Simon & Schuster

Kuperman, Alan J. (2015): Obama’s Libya Debacle. How a Well-Meaning Intervention Ended in Failure, in: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 94, No. 2, p. 66 – 77



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