On March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, spearheaded by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, authorizing military intervention in Libya. The goal, Obama explained, was to save the lives of peaceful, pro-democracy protesters who found themselves the target of a crackdown by Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Not only did Qaddafi endanger the momentum of the nascent Arab Spring, which had recently swept away authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, but he also was poised to commit a bloodbath in the Libyan city where the uprising had started, said the president. “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi—a city nearly the size of Charlotte—could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world,” Obama declared. Two days after the UN authorization, the United States and other NATO countries established a no-fly zone throughout Libya and started bombing Qaddafi’s forces. Seven months later, in October 2011, after an extended military campaign with sustained Western support, rebel forces conquered the country and shot Qaddafi dead.
In the immediate wake of the military victory, U.S. officials were triumphant. Writing in these pages in 2012, Ivo Daalder, then the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, and James Stavridis, then supreme allied commander of Europe, declared, “NATO’s operation in Libya has rightly been hailed as a model intervention.” In the Rose Garden after Qaddafi’s death, Obama himself crowed, “Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives.” Indeed, the United States seemed to have scored a hat trick: nurturing the Arab Spring, averting a Rwanda-like genocide, and eliminating Libya as a potential source of terrorism.
That verdict, however, turns out to have been premature. In retrospect, Obama’s intervention in Libya was an
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