"Of course, there is no question that Libya--and the world--would be better off with Qaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."
--President Barack Obama, Address to the Nation on Libya, March 28, 2011 (White House 2011b).
"In Afghanistan ... I said what everyone in Washington knew but we couldn't officially acknowledge: that our goal in Libya was regime change."
--Former Central Intelligence Agency Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, recounting a statement he made in early July 2011 (Panetta 2014, 354).
In August 2011 a U.S.-led, U.N.-authorized military intervention to "protect civilians ... under threat of attack" in Libya (U.N. Security Council 2011c, 3) enabled rebels to overthrow long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Although there was a democratic parliamentary election in July 2012, the country quickly succumbed to the rule of lawless militias. These were largely descended from local rebel brigades that benefited from the intervention. In September an extremist Islamist militia was implicated in the assassination of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in the former rebel capitol of Benghazi. Today Libya is widely characterized as a "failed state." Rival governments--in the West and in the East--proclaim their legitimacy. But effective political and economic power resides in hundreds of competing militias, including newer Islamic State and tribal formations. In 2014, fighting killed up to 2,500 people (International Crisis Group 2015, i). In February 2016 the Obama administration debated using military force against the Islamic State grouping (Schmitt 2016).
On the international level, the undisciplined outflow of arms, ethnic fighters and Islamic extremists from postwar Libya precipitated an Islamic extremist takeover of half the nation of Mali and strengthened jihadists from North and West Africa to the Egyptian Sinai. The intervention, mainly organized by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), aggravated relations between the United States and Russia. The latter continues to denounce alleged Western misuse of the United Nations to force regime change. Recently the chaos in Libya precipitated a breakdown of coastal migration controls, contributing to a risky mass exodus of African and Middle Eastern refugees toward Europe.
These developments raise important questions about presidential policy making in Libya (Congress did not play a role). How did an intervention justified by humanitarian concern become one that overturned a regime and ushered in its chaotic successor? Did the Obama administration consider alternative policies that might have avoided the worst consequences of the intervention? Are there any implications for the integrity of the American democratic process?
On these issues, the post-intervention reflections of former and current U.S. officials are less than satisfying. In a 2015 article in Foreign Affairs, two former members of the National Security Staff wrote, "The military campaign that the United States designed and led (even if from behind the scenes) was tightly limited to ending attacks against civilians and achieving a cease-fire that would pave the way for a political transition ... As a result of his intransigence, it was Qaddafi himself and not NATO who turned the intervention from a mission to protect civilians into something that led to regime change" (Chollet and Fishman 2015, 155). The authors ask their readers to believe that Qaddafi had the power to force NATO to do "something" that overthrew him. Having endowed him with the decisive agency, they do not find it necessary to consider whether alternative U.S. and NATO approaches might have produced a better political transition. Abstracting the postwar situation from what came before, they conclude that it would have been difficult to improve upon America's performance given the fledgling new government's reluctance to admit international peacekeepers and inability to utilize outside assistance (Chollet and Fishman 2015, 156-57).
Similarly, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by all accounts a major force in the formulation and implementation of the military operation (Cooper and Myers 2011; Warrick 2011; Mills 2011; Gates 2014, 511) sheds little light on its evolution or alternative policy options. For instance, during the Democratic Presidential Debate in December 2015 she observed:
And I think it's--fair to say that--of all of the Arab leaders Qaddafi probably had more blood on his hands of Americans than anybody else. And when he moved on his own people threatening--a massacre, genocide--the Europeans and the Arabs, our allies and partners--did ask for American help. And we provided it. And we didn't put a single boot on the ground. And--Gaddafi was deposed.
The Libyans turned out for one of the most successful Arab elections that any Arab country has had. They elected moderate leaders. Now there has been a lot of turmoil and trouble as they have tried to deal with these radical elements, which you find in this arc of instability from North Africa to Afghanistan. And it is imperative that we do more ... to try to deal with this arc of instability which does have a lot of impact on what happens in a country like Libya (CBS News 2015).
Secretary Clinton fails to explain exactly how help in preventing a "massacre, genocide" produced Qaddafi's overthrow. Even the phrase "Qaddafi was deposed" lacks a subject; it does not identify who or what deposed him. Clinton too views the postwar scene in isolation from the preceding U.S. policy and is at a loss to come up with specific preventive measures.
President Obama's postintervention remarks are somewhat more enlightening--but also quite confusing. During his October 2012 presidential debate with Governor Mitt Romney, Obama commented:
But you know, going back to Libya--because this is an example of how we make choices. You know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure Muammar Qaddafi didn't stay there ... Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. That--Muammar Qaddafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job. (Commission on Presidential Debates 2012)
Obama acknowledges U.S. agency in Qaddafi's downfall, but does not indicate when his decision to go beyond stopping the massacre to pursue regime change was made. As for why, he offers a curious rationale by noting that Qaddafi had "American blood on his hands." This is a clear reference to a Libyan agent's involvement in the 1988 destruction of a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie Scotland. But the United States and United Nations had already addressed this problem by imposing economic sanctions on Libya and demanding that Qaddafi hand over the suspected terrorists, which he finally did in 1999. By 2003, Qaddafi had also agreed to pay compensation to the victims' families--and the world moved on (Vandewalle 2006, 140, 152, 170, 179-84). Indeed, by the time of the Arab Spring, Libya's overall relationship with the United States was fairly good: Qaddafi had given up his weapons of mass destruction programs and was cooperating closely with U.S. anti-terrorist programs.
Obama has not discussed the contradiction between his admission and statements by him and his administration during the intervention that disclaimed regime change. In an August 2014 interview with journalist Thomas Friedman, the president spoke of "a lesson I had to learn" from Libya:
Then it's the day after Qaddafi is gone ... At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn't have any civic traditions. (New York Times 2014)
Like others, however, the president focused only on the postwar experience and did not provide any preventative policy recommendations.
This article attempts to answer the important questions about policy transformation and its consequences that U.S. policy makers have mostly avoided. It concludes that, from the early days of the intervention, the Obama administration deceived both Americans and the international community about its policy of military-assisted regime change in Libya. This dishonesty may well have prevented the emergence of alternative policies that would have better served the interests of Americans, Libyans, and the international community. It has also made it difficult to hold the administration accountable for the ongoing crisis in postwar Libya.
How the Intervention Developed
On February 15, 2011 the sudden wave of popular uprisings against longtime Middle Eastern dictators called "the Arab Spring," swept into Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. It quickly conquered the historically disaffected, Cyrenaica province in the East and erupted in several Western cities in Tripolitania. Facing a powerful challenge to his 42 years of personal rule, Muammar Qaddafi used disproportionate force against demonstrators who rapidly turned to violent attacks on regime institutions--provoking an even more brutal response. With the body count mounting into the hundreds, on February 26 U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970 unanimously called for "an immediate end to the violence" and "steps to fulfill the legitimate demands of the population." It backed up these demands by imposing an arms embargo, travel bans, and asset freezes on Qaddafi, his family, and key security officials and referring the situation to the International Criminal Court (U.N. Security Council 2011a).
By the time the Council returned to the subject on March 17' circumstances on the ground had changed significantly. The...