What Are the Lessons of Libya's Chaos?

Critics should think twice before claiming that Libya settles the debate over humanitarian intervention.

By Nathan Pippenger

The New Yorker’s new dispatch from Libya has been getting lots of attention for its vivid account of how much things have deteriorated while the world’s attention has been turned elsewhere. It includes this blunt summary of the horrifying anarchy of post-Qaddafi life:

There is no overstating the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya. Two competing governments claim legitimacy. Armed militias roam the streets. The electricity is frequently out of service, and most business is at a standstill; revenues from oil, the country’s greatest asset, have dwindled by more than ninety per cent. Some three thousand people have been killed by fighting in the past year, and nearly a third of the country’s population has fled across the border to Tunisia. What has followed the downfall of a tyrant—a downfall encouraged by NATO air strikes—is the tyranny of a dangerous and pervasive instability.

Zack Beauchamp, reacting to the foregoing, glumly comments: “A number of Libyans are trying bravely to bring order to their country, but there is little hope on the horizon.” Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald takes the opportunity to revisit some of the premature declarations of victory among those who favored strikes against Qaddafi—a collection of mini “Mission Accomplished” moments from the liberal interventionist crowd. Their despair over Libya’s unraveling, Greenwald predicts, is a clear sign that “it’s only a matter of time before another Western ‘intervention’ in Libya becomes conventional wisdom”—to clean up the mess the first intervention created. “That the U.S. would end up intervening in Libya again as a result of the first intervention was painfully obvious,” Greenwald asserts. “Far from serving as a model, this Libya intervention should severely discredit the core selling point of so-called ‘humanitarian wars.’ Some non-governmental advocates of ‘humanitarian war’ may be motivated by the noble aims they invoke, but humanitarianism is simply not why governments fight wars; that is just the pretty wrapping used to sell them.”

For reasons I outlined the last time Libya was declared to be the definitive case against humanitarian interventions, I’m less convinced that the chaos there actually proves very much one way or another. First, Greenwald overstates the optimism of the early post-Qaddafi days: despite his assertions of a “giddy party,” celebrations, world leaders “strut[ting] around like some sort of conquering heroes,” and the war’s supporters “gloating and cackling” and “drowning” in “bravado,” contemporary accounts reflect a more wary attitude. In October 2011, for instance, Marc Lynch noted: “There’s every reason to be cautious about Libya’s future, of course. There will be massive challenges facing the emerging new country, from independent militias to tribal and regional conflicts to the legacy of decades of the systematic destruction of independent civil society. But nobody denies that. Despite what Google tells me is 64,300,000 articles warning that ‘now comes the hard part in Libya,’ this is a straw man. I have heard almost nobody arguing the opposite.” What’s more, Lynch pointed out, the Libyan intervention featured real successes:

But for all those concerns, the intervention in Libya should be recognized as a success and real accomplishment for the international community. The NATO intervention did save Libya’s protestors from a near-certain bloodbath in Benghazi. It did help Libyans free themselves from what was an extremely nasty, violent, and repressive regime. It did not lead to the widely predicted quagmire, the partition of Libya, the collapse of the NTC, or massive regional conflagration. It was fought under a real, if contestable, international legal mandate which enjoyed widespread Arab support. It did help to build — however imperfectly and selectively — an emerging international norm rejecting impunity for regimes which massacre their people. Libya’s success did inspire Arab democracy protestors across the region. And it did not result in an unpopular, long-term American military occupation which it would have never seemed prudent to withdraw.

A few years later, some of these apparent successes look far less certain. Libya may still be carved up in law someday, as it now is in fact. And the lack of an occupation, despite its obvious prudence, may nonetheless have enabled much of the current instability. Still, other benefits of the Libya intervention are undeniable: Qaddafi did not carry out the massacres he promised, and the broader norm against massacres was upheld. If that norm is further strengthened, its long-term benefits will be unknowable: How do you count the number of lives saved by changes in a brutal regime’s decision calculus?

And that’s not the only reason to hesitate before citing Libya as proof of the folly of humanitarian interventions. As I wrote last summer, the goals of humanitarian interventions should be regarded as “extremely minimalistic,” and the key tests in evaluating them should include what I’d call the lesser of two evils analysis. The chaos of Libya in 2015 has to measured against the likely results of Qaddafi’s war against his own people—which, recall, was hardly some hypothetical problem dreamed up by war-hungry D.C. think tankers. It had already begun in parts of the country, and the dictator was promising a door-to-door slaughter of his opponents.

Obviously, one possible response was to stay out of the affair. Maybe Qaddafi’s threat would have turned out to be empty, and after sporadic violence the situation would have cooled. Or maybe a civil war would have broken out, with years of warfare and the ultimate outcome of a divided country. Or maybe the opposition would have been crushed, and an outright massacre of innocents—their children, relatives, friends, and any other suspected dissidents—would have followed. If Qaddafi had proceeded with the promised slaughter, it would have been naïve to suppose that our inaction preserved our innocence. Standing by while preventable atrocities occur, especially when a dictator has essentially dared you to stop him, is itself a form of complicity, and it’s self-serving to imagine otherwise. For comparison, look no further than Syria, where a dictator’s repression has created the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II. Perhaps intervening early against Assad might have created a state of Libya-like chaos. Would that have been worse than the fate of Syria over the last several years?

None of this proves that intervention is generally the right policy, or even that it was the right call in Libya. But the chaos in Libya doesn’t prove it was the wrong call, either—any more than the bloodshed in Syria proves that intervention would have been the right one. The question of how to respond to atrocities is one of the most horrifying problems in modern international politics—and one whose complexity makes it a poor fit for moral victory laps.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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