Questions after Qaddafi
October 26, 2011
In the wake of Moammar Qaddafi’s death in Libya, some have suggested that the US-NATO intervention there has been an important success for the United States and President Barack Obama and that it could be a model for US foreign policy in the future.
They have argued that the United States was able to end the Qaddafi regime without a major American troop presence on the ground in Libya, with NATO in the lead, and the United States in a secondary role, and with significant international support.
Unfortunately, however, the longer-term lessons of Qaddafi’s removal are far from clear—and the Obama Administration’s approach raises a number of questions.
The first question is how Libya will recover from the conflict. Will the country’s National Transitional Council rebuild Libya’s economy and establish a stable democratic government? In answering this question, many seem already to have forgotten the American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The United States removed the Taliban from power 10 years ago using air power and small numbers of special operations troops that supported the former Northern Alliance’s military forces. When the Taliban fell, many saw the operation as demonstrating the success of America’s new warfare.
But conditions in Afghanistan deteriorated and—a decade later—the United States still has 100,000 soldiers there. The United States likewise succeeded in unseating Saddam Hussein in Iraq with a relatively small ground force, but found quickly that establishing postwar stability was far more difficult than expected. Instead of accelerating reconstruction, Iraq’s oil wealth became an object of competition among political and ethnic groups. Will Libya avoid these pitfalls?
The second question is whether NATO will be prepared to take on further missions like the Libya operation. Of course, many have asked whether NATO would launch new “out-of-area” missions after the one in Afghanistan, which has strained the alliance’s capabilities and its unity; notwithstanding those questions, NATO did intervene in Libya—which is much closer to Europe and affects its security more directly.
Nevertheless, with much more at stake, France and Britain, two of NATO’s most capable European powers, were unable to operate without extensive US support and nearly ran out of precision-guided bombs after just a month. Even as the Libya fight continued, outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates chastised European governments for their declining share of NATO’s defense spending. And Europe’s economies entered into a fiscal crisis that cannot but restrict their military budgets for some time to come.
The third question is what lessons others in the region will draw from Libya’s experiences. After Iraq’s sudden and dramatic defeat, Qaddafi decided to give up Libya’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, to compensate families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, and to take other steps to repair his country’s relations with the United States, Britain, and other Western governments.
Washington and its allies, in turn, were supposed to acquiesce to Qaddafi’s rule, but engaged with Qaddafi for only a few years before providing substantial military aid to his internal enemies.
Western leaders would doubtless argue that Qaddafi violated the unspoken terms of the West’s engagement by threatening civilians in Benghazi—but others in the Middle East may have a different view. After what happened in Libya, will Iran’s leaders be prepared to give up their country’s apparent nuclear weapons programs as part of a “grand bargain”?
A final question is about international geopolitics. In March, the United States, France, and Britain succeed in winning UN Security Council approval of a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures . . . to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” to enforce a ban on “all flights in the airspace” of Libya. China and Russia abstained in the voting, but both governments later denounced the US-NATO military mission, which they said went well beyond the scope of the UN resolution.
Would these governments vote the same way again? We already have a partial answer to this question; in early October, both China and Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution denouncing Syria’s crackdown on internal dissent. Beijing and Moscow suspected that if they permitted that resolution to move forward, the United States, Britain, or France would soon propose a second resolution requesting UN authorization for sanctions or other action against Damascus, which they were unwilling to support. Their double veto suggests that notwithstanding US and European concerns, new UN Security Council action on Iran—a much greater priority for Washington than Libya—is unlikely any time soon.
If Libya’s interim leaders and people are able to build a stable government and a solid economy while avoiding repression or internal conflict, Qaddafi’s removal from power will mark a major step forward for a country that has suffered for four decades. Nevertheless, this success—which is still far from certain—will have come at an uncertain price. Hopefully it will not prove more costly than many expect.