It is tempting to view the chaos in Libya today as yet one more demonstration of the futility of U.S.-led military interventions. That is precisely the case that Alan Kuperman makes in his article (“Obama’s Libya Debacle,” March/April 2015), which asserts that NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya was “an abject failure” that set free Libya’s vast conventional weapons stockpiles, gave rise to extremist groups, and even exacerbated the conflict in Syria. Today, no one involved in Libya policy since the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi is satisfied with how events have unfolded. As Kuperman rightly notes, U.S. President Barack Obama has said that what has happened there is one of his greatest regrets and that he draws lessons from it when considering U.S. military interventions elsewhere.

But Kuperman goes much further, arguing that the situation that led to NATO’s intervention wasn’t so bad—that Qaddafi’s threat to civilians was overblown and that the United States and Europe were snookered into thinking there was a humanitarian emergency. The better course, according to Kuperman, would have been to allow the regime to defeat the uprising, which it was on the verge of doing when NATO intervened, and instead invest in a political solution with Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam. Such arguments are seductive in hindsight, but they don’t shed any light on what policymakers confronted at the time, and in the case of the Saif counterfactual, they are misguided.

When the Libya crisis erupted in February 2011, reports came in from all corners—diplomatic and intelligence assessments from the United States and Europe, press reports, and eyewitness accounts—that the regime was perpetrating arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings. Given his record, the world rallied to pressure Qaddafi to relent. In late February, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for an immediate end to the violence and imposing an arms embargo on Libya and sanctions against the Qaddafi family and key regime members.

Of course, things only got worse. Qaddafi’s own actions and rhetoric made clear to those of us in Washington (and even to the usually skeptical Russia and reticent Arab League) that he would not step aside easily and that a humanitarian catastrophe loomed. If the uprising con­tinued, Qaddafi’s forces would eventually regroup and rout the rebel forces in the east with the benefit of superior arms.

Kuperman describes Qaddafi as publicly offering reassurances and peace overtures, but what most everyone else saw was a Qaddafi who went to the airwaves and pledged that there would be “no mercy” and that his troops would go house to house looking for “traitors.” “Capture the rats,” he told followers. On March 15, 2011, as Qaddafi’s forces shelled the city of Ajdabiya, The New York Times reported from the frontlines on the frantic exodus under way: “Hundreds of cars packed with children, mattresses, suitcases—anything that could be grabbed and packed in—careened through the streets as residents fled. Long lines of cars could be seen on the highway heading north to Benghazi, about 100 miles away.” As Qaddafi’s forces bore down on Benghazi, a city of nearly 700,000 people, the world saw a slaughter in the making.

Members of the Libyan pro-government forces, backed by locals, gather on a tank in Benghazi, January 2015.
Members of the Libyan pro-government forces, backed by locals, gather on a tank in Benghazi, January 2015.
Reuters / Esam Omran Al-Fetori

That said, the decision to use military force was a close call, one that divided top U.S. officials and that Obama approached carefully. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who opposed the intervention, recalled in his memoir that the president told him it was a “51–49” decision. 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. Unfortunately, despite the diplomatic efforts of the United States and others—a UN envoy, an African Union initiative, a Russian special envoy, and even a Russian chess player—leaving power was the last thing Qaddafi proved interested in. 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.

In a July 2011 meeting with Qaddafi’s representatives in Tunis, U.S. envoys (one of us, Derek Chollet, among them) made one last attempt to offer a way out. Instead of exploring the terms of a deal for Qaddafi to step aside, the Libyans blustered that the rebellion was driven by “foreign agents” and al Qaeda and that Washington should be supporting them instead of bombing them. They expressed genuine disappointment, believing that since the reopening of ties in 2003, the United States would “protect them.” After the war, some of these Libyan officials admitted to U.S. officials that they had understood the brutal nature of the regime they were part of and that at no point during the first months of the bombing did Qaddafi’s family or inner circle believe they would be defeated—that, in the words of one of Qaddafi’s closest confidantes, they suffered from “supreme arrogance and miscalculation.” Given this, it seems that the way Qaddafi ended his rule—on the run and hiding in a sewer pipe, before being killed—was inevitable.

But even if members of the regime had been willing to negotiate Qaddafi’s exit, Kuperman’s assertion that Qaddafi’s son Saif would have been a viable alternative is far-fetched. (It’s worth pointing out that Saif’s principal aide participated in the Tunis meeting.) Unfortunately for the Libyan people, Saif was part of the problem, not the solution. True, he played the role of reformer in the eyes of the international community for a brief period. But he was focused primarily on removing Libya from sanctions lists in order to entice investors. There is no evidence that genuine political reform was anywhere on Saif’s agenda, despite his having handsomely paid some notable American academics to give lectures in Libya—just as his brothers paid for pop stars to perform on their private yachts. Indeed, any political liberalization or additional transparency would have interfered with Qaddafi’s ability to use state wealth for his family’s personal benefit.

U.S. officials who had dealt with Saif after Libya renounced terrorism and gave up its nuclear weapons ambitions in 2004 considered him overrated and, by the time of the war, irreconcilable. If there was any remaining hope that Saif could act as a moderating influence on his father and convince him to relinquish power, it was dashed on the evening of February 20, three days after the protests broke out in Benghazi. 
In a rambling late-night speech that matched his father’s tone in venom, Saif warned the rebels that the Libyan government was not as weak as the regimes that had fallen in Tunisia and Egypt. He suggested that the protests were overblown and manipulated by outside actors, and he promised to “fight to the last bullet.” For previously loyal Libyan public servants, such as Ali Aujali, then the ambassador to the United States, it was Saif’s speech that prompted them to defect to the opposition.

By arguing that the United States never should have been involved in the first place, Kuperman avoids the tougher problem: how it could have handled postwar Libya better, especially given its limited influence over a government that has not been eager to accept help and its limited ability to deliver that help even if the government wanted it.

The paradox of postwar Libya was that the Libyan people and their consecutive interim governments both demanded their independence and insisted on international aid. That dynamic caused perpetual frustration in the international community as it sought to help rebuild the Libyan institutions that Qaddafi had decimated. For this reason, the international community trod carefully, charging the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and its successive special representatives of the UN secretary-general, to oversee the design, coordination, and implementation of aid programs. Contrary to the assertions of some critics, there was never a realistic option for establishing an international peacekeeping or postconflict security mechanism, because the Libyans did not want it. And no viable candidates from the West or the region stepped up to lead or compose such a force, because no one wanted to participate in an enterprise that might appear neocolonial.

Absent a peacekeeping effort, UNSMIL and Libya’s key allies sought to put together a variety of assistance programs that could start rebuilding Libya’s economic, judicial, and, most important, security institutions. Those offers no doubt could have been better coordinated, but every assistance program took weeks, if not months, for the Libyans to accept—and even longer to get started due to the torturous pace of decision-making, Libyan ministers’ lack of budgetary authority, and the public sector’s minimal bureaucratic capacity. For example, Italy, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States all worked to build a Libyan “general-purpose force” to replace the militias, but Libya’s administrative incompetence and lack of both resources and qualified recruits got in the way. Despite a massive effort, this initiative collapsed. In fact, beyond some effective civil society and elections assistance programs, just one program designed and implemented between 2012 and 2014 has worked as intended in the security sphere: the destruction of leftover and undeclared chemical weapons.

Yes, the international community could have demanded more from the Libyans. Looking back, perhaps it was too deferential to Libyan sensitivities about interference in the country’s internal affairs, and perhaps officials should have pressed the Libyans much harder to disarm and demobilize the militias and reincorporate them into a reformed military structure. But outsiders’ leverage was limited; the United States and its partners could not force decisions, sign essential documents, or extract payments from a dysfunctional budget process. Instead, the militias proliferated and were legitimized by the Libyan government, leading to the chaos of today.

The other major problem the United States faced was a lack of on-the-ground personnel who could evaluate the situation firsthand, work with the Libyan government, coordinate with allies, and report back to Washington with recommendations. Just around ten U.S. officers were performing these tasks in Tripoli in 2012, a consequence of security concerns and the fact that the U.S. embassy had to be completely overhauled after having been evacuated and ransacked in 2011. After Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was killed in 2012, Washington understandably prioritized recovering from the tragedy of his death and ensuring the protection of the remaining personnel, making it excessively difficult to gain any additional traction in assisting the Libyan government. Last year, the United States and most other countries shuttered their embassies in Tripoli due to security concerns.

These are only some preliminary lessons from the intervention and its aftermath. Unlike the interventions 
in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, which involved thousands of troops, the one in Libya offered U.S. diplomats and aid officials none of the assets (or occasional disadvantages) of the U.S. military. Rebuilding civilian ministries and interacting with local populations are certainly easier under the protection of U.S. or coalition military forces. As Obama has made clear, additional planning is necessary for such light-footprint approaches to postwar stabilization.

While we disagree with Kuperman’s conclusions, his prodigious research into the Libya intervention illustrates the dilemmas policymakers face, especially the twin challenges of information and time. It also brings to mind the different perspectives of analysts and decision-makers. As Henry Kissinger observed in his book Diplomacy, analysts can choose the problems they want to study, “whereas the statesman’s problems are imposed on him.” And although analysts possess all the facts, have ample time to reach their conclusions, and face minimal risks in being wrong, the pressure of time, he wrote, is the “overwhelming challenge” for policymakers, who “must act on assessments that cannot be proved 
at the time” and whose “mistakes are irretrievable.”

DEREK CHOLLET is Counselor and Senior Adviser at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. In 2011–12, he was Senior Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff. In 2012–15, he was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.

 BEN FISHMAN is Consulting Senior Fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In 2011–13, he was Director for North Africa and Jordan on the National Security Council staff. 


I appreciate that Derek Chollet and Ben Fishman concede one of the central tenets of my recent article: that in the wake of NATO’s 2011 intervention, a “military campaign that the United States designed and led,” there is “chaos in Libya today.” But these two former officials from the U.S. National Security Council attempt to pin blame on everyone except those most responsible: President Barack Obama and his senior advisers who lobbied for the intervention.

Chollet and Fishman say that it is not the administration’s fault for intervening on the false pretense of an impending bloodbath, because the whole “world saw a slaughter in the making.” But that simply is not true. The world’s top two human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, never warned of an impending massacre in Libya. Nor did the U.S. intelligence community, according to one of its senior officials, who told The Washington Times this past January that the intervention “was an intelligence-light decision.”

My exposure of this flawed premise for war does not reflect merely the 20-20 hindsight of an academic, as Chollet and Fishman suggest. To the contrary, I warned of Libyan trickery as far back as March 2011, writing in USA Today: “Despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda.” Given that experts in the intelligence, human rights, and scholarly communities expressed strong doubts at the time about rebel warnings of an impending bloodbath, it is the Obama administration that must accept responsibility for spearheading a disastrous intervention on phony grounds.

In another dodge, Chollet and Fishman allege that it was Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fault for failing to negotiate a peaceful outcome “despite the diplomatic efforts of the United States and others.” The facts show otherwise. Just three days into the bombing campaign, it was the Obama administration that unilaterally terminated peace negotiations between U.S. Africa Command and the Qaddafi regime.

Charles Kubic, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, who brokered the negotiations, told The Washington Times that Qaddafi’s military leaders had proposed a peace plan under which “the Libyans would stop all combat operations and withdraw all military forces to the outskirts of the cities and assume a defensive posture.” Qaddafi, Kubic recounted, “was willing to step down and permit a transition government” under two conditions: that his inner circle receive free passage out of the country and that Libya’s military retain sufficient force to fight radical Islamists. Looking back, Kubic posed a key question regarding the approach of Obama and his team: “If their goal was to get Qaddafi out of power, then why not give a 72-hour truce a try?” For these administration officials, he concluded, “it wasn’t enough to get him out of power; they wanted him dead.”

Unaware, Qaddafi continued to pursue peace talks in vain. On April 10, 2011, he accepted an African Union proposal for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by a national dialogue. But the rebels declared that they would reject any cease-fire until Qaddafi had left power, and the Obama administration backed this intransigent position. Still seeking peace, Qaddafi’s government offered on May 26 not merely to cease its fire but also to negotiate a constitution and pay compensation to victims. The rebels summarily rejected this offer as well, supported, again, by the Obama administration.

The authors report that Chollet and other U.S. negotiators, in July 2011, after four months of NATO bombing, offered “a deal for Qaddafi to step aside.” They claim that because Qaddafi rejected such demands for unilateral surrender, “it was Qaddafi himself, and not NATO, who turned the intervention from a mission to protect civilians into something that led to regime change.”

But this assertion turns logic on its head. The Obama administration had insisted on regime change from the very start. On March 3, 2011, two weeks before NATO intervened, Obama declared that Qaddafi “must step down from power and leave.” That explains why the State Department ordered U.S. Africa Command to halt peace talks on March 22, and why NATO kept bombing even after the rebels repeatedly rejected negotiations.

The most repugnant part of Chollet and Fishman’s response comes when they blame Qaddafi for his own torture and execution. It was because of the Libyan leader’s refusal to acquiesce to NATO bombing, they insist, that “the way Qaddafi ended his rule—on the run and hiding in a sewer pipe, before being killed—was inevitable.”

Not so. This gruesome denouement was hardly inevitable. Instead, it was the result of the Obama administration’s serial errors: starting a war of choice based on a faulty premise, exceeding the UN’s mandate to protect civilians, rejecting Qaddafi’s peace offers, insisting on regime change, and supporting an opposition composed of radical Islamists and fractious militias.

After Qaddafi’s death was confirmed in October 2011, a gloating Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared to a television reporter, “We came, we saw, he died!” She was justified in claiming credit on behalf of the Obama administration for the outcome in Libya, including Qaddafi’s brutal murder. Back then, however, she and her colleagues believed their intervention was a success. Now that it has turned into a dismal failure, it is too late to shed responsibility. As President George W. Bush learned the hard way, “mission accomplished” can be declared, but subsequent events may haunt you.

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