Who Lost Libya?

Obama’s Intervention in Retrospect

Marking the third anniversary of the start of the battle for Benghazi, March 2014. Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters


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

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