By Colum Lynch
The 2011 Libyan intervention pitched the region into a decade of chaos and undermined U.S. confidence in the wisdom of using military force to save lives.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, then-U.S. President Barack Obama boasted about his role in the overthrow of Libya’s strongman, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, claiming he had deposed a despot “at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq.”
The cost of the U.S.-led North African adventure has grown considerably in the decade since the United States jammed Resolution 1973 through the United Nations Security Council on St. Patrick’s Day in 2011, authorizing the use of force in Libya to protect civilians from potential atrocities at the hands of Africa’s longest-serving dictator.
The security vacuum has been filled by legions of armed militias, foreign mercenaries, Islamist extremists, human traffickers, and regional and international powers, who have all transformed the North African country into the region’s greatest exporter of instability and mayhem. And it resulted in the killing of former U.S. Ambassador to Libya John Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. citizens—as well as countless Libyans.
Once dismissed by U.S. policymakers as a sad crisis unfolding beyond the reach of its vital interests, Libya has forced its way onto the radar of national security officials in the past decade.
Today, Libya has become an arena for competing regional powers seeking to fill the vacuum left by Qaddafi’s fall, pitting NATO ally Turkey and Qatar against Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates in a proxy war that has introduced advanced military equipment into the country and attracted more than 20,000 foreign fighters and private security contractors from several countries, including Chad, Syria, Sudan and Russia.
Libya’s unraveling has become a symbol for many Americans of the limits of U.S. power and the folly of military intervention in distant countries. It has undercut the case for humanitarian intervention globally and continues to haunt key former and current U.S. officials, some of whose careers have been marred by Libya.
It has also emerged as a test of the Biden administration’s will to assert American diplomatic leadership in a crisis that many of his top advisers help set in motion a decade ago.
“I understand the neuralgia. I understand the hesitation. I certainly understand the history,” said Stephanie Williams, a former U.S. State Department expert on North Africa who served until last month as the acting U.N. special representative to Libya. She believes high-level U.S. diplomatic involvement in Libya could help.
“Geostrategically speaking, I think Libya is a vital national security interest to the United States,” she said. “You ignore it at your peril.”
The decision to relegate the job of stabilizing the country to the Europeans and a fractious coalition of often corrupt transition politicians has fallen woefully short.
The Libya intervention, said Richard Gowan, the International Crisis Group’s U.N. representative, “was simultaneously the high point and death knell of humanitarian interventionism.”
“If we were facing a Libya-type situation today, I think it would be very difficult to make the same decision as 2011,” Jeffrey Feltman, who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during the invasion of Libya, told Foreign Policy in an interview last month. “I think the politics for this country and the experiences of Iraq and Libya would suggest that we wouldn’t intervene in the same way. We would face the consequences of the human catastrophe, the human cost of an autocratic crackdown.”
In a March 3 speech, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signaled a far more cautious approach.
“We will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force,” said Blinken, who broke with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during the Obama administration by backing U.S. military interventions in Libya and Syria.
“We have tried these tactics in the past. However well-intentioned, they haven’t worked. They’ve given democracy promotion a bad name, and they’ve lost the confidence of the American people. We will do things differently.”
For the moment, the United States appears to be reserving most of its diplomatic firepower for China while relying on special envoys to wind down conflicts from Afghanistan to Yemen. It is seeking to revive the Iran nuclear deal that former U.S. President Donald Trump scuttled.
Libya has fallen off the radar, according to critics. Experts fret that Libya’s unraveling has led policymakers in Washington to steer clear of the country, right when it could benefit from U.S. support for a delicate political transition.
“There is a Libya allergy,” Feltman said, who oversaw Libya policy as U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs and has advocated for a more high-profile U.S. role in supporting Libya’s peace process. “The U.S. is not as focused as it should be, as Libya could be an opportunity.”
Feltman, Williams, and other observers believe the Biden administration has a rare chance to help Libya step back from the precipice—but that it would require a considerable diplomatic investment and the direct involvement of high-level U.S. officials.
“Never underestimate the power of a phone call from Biden and how this can change matters on the ground,” said Anas El Gomati, the director of the Sadeq Institute, a Tripoli-based think tank.
He argued that Biden could pressure countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which he believes have been spoiling the peace process, to abide by a U.N. arms embargo.
Congressional leaders have prodded the Biden administration to take a tougher line but have yet to receive assurances that it is doing so, according to a U.S. official familiar with the exchanges. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while the administration is still seeking to formulate its diplomatic strategy, it has not conducted a full interagency review of Libya policy.
So Congress has drafted its own bill for a more proactive U.S. policy, one that would urge the administration to get allies to withdraw their proxy forces from Libya and threaten sanctions against individuals who violate the arms embargo. But lawmakers suspect the Biden administration is reluctant to pile on another unwelcome demand to its Middle East policy challenges.
The U.S. official said there is a perception that Biden’s team feels they “have read the riot act to the Saudis and, to a lesser extent, to the UAE over Yemen and [the murder of Jamal] Khashoggi, and now they are being asked to add this to the list of things that they have to yell about.”
A senior Biden administration official countered that the United States is “absolutely leaning in” on Libya’s democratic transition and that there is a “very robust interagency process” underway to determine next steps.
The U.S. embassy, the official said, has already begun discussions with key allies about the need to withdraw foreign forces from Libya. “We have started those discussions,” the official said. The issue is likely to be raised at a more senior level when the administration “is able to arrange those calls.”
The administration is upbeat about Libya’s political prospects, citing a cease-fire that has held for several months and the swearing-in this week of interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who has received support from both warring camps.
“This is an optimistic moment,” the administration official said. Meanwhile, Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, has redoubled calls for regional powers to back off.
“It is long past time for foreign countries sending mercenaries and weapons that harm innocent Libyans to begin their withdrawal and respect the resounding Libyan calls for a peaceful political transition,” he said in a statement last week, promising accountability—which could mean sanctions—for any countries that undermine Libya’s road map.
The United States had a complicated history with Libya’s leader, Qaddafi, withdrawing its ambassador in 1972, closing its embassy for the first time after a mob set it aflame in 1979, and placing Tripoli on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
After a terror attack in Berlin that killed two U.S. soldiers, the United States carried out airstrikes against Libya in 1986 and subsequently organized international sanctions against Tripoli for its role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.
Relations began to thaw following years of diplomatic outreach that resulted in Libya’s agreement to compensate the victims of the Lockerbie attack and its commitment to dismantle its clandestine nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs.
The U.S. decision to intervene in Libya was taken grudgingly.
Obama had inherited open-ended, increasingly unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and was keen to avoid a third U.S. military intervention in a Muslim country.
But the popular uprising spreading across the Middle East during the Arab Spring scrambled U.S. calculations. Protesters in Tunisia and Egypt had successfully forced their autocratic leaders to step down with limited bloodshed. Qaddafi, though, moved swiftly to crush demonstrators, feeding concerns that the regime was prepared to commit mass atrocities to stay in power.
As Qaddafi massed trips around the city of Benghazi, where the uprising began, Arab governments, led by Persian Gulf states, began lobbying U.N. Security Council members to take action, proposing they authorize a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians in the city of nearly 700,000 people. Britain, France, and Lebanon spearheaded an effort in the council to win support for such a resolution.
At the time, the Libyan mission to the United Nations was divided. Libya’s U.N. ambassador, Abdel Rahman Shalgham, who’s known Qaddafi since childhood, referred to the Libyan leader as a “friend.” But his deputy, Ibrahim Dabbashi, began openly advocating military intervention to prosecute Qaddafi before the International Criminal Court.
Obama’s national security team was deeply divided. Then-Vice President Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, and White House Chief of Staff William Daley forcefully opposed military intervention.
A no-fly zone, they reasoned, would do little to protect civilians, as Qaddafi’s assault on Benghazi was carried out by tanks and ground forces. The United States’ interests in Libya were too limited to justify a more expansive military commitment.
Susan Rice, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had initially signaled contempt for the European initiative. On March 15, 2011, Rice told France’s then-U.N. ambassador, Gérard Araud, that Washington would have nothing to do with European aims in the region.
“You’re not going to drag us into your shitty war,” Rice snapped, according to an account by a senior council diplomat. The plan, she later wrote in her memoir, Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, was “a half-assed response, like being a little bit pregnant.”
But Rice—who during the Clinton administration was part of a White House team that opposed sending peacekeepers to Rwanda on the eve of that country’s genocide—was committed to doing something to halt mass atrocities. She had privately instructed her staff to draw up a resolution that would authorize sweeping authority to use force in Libya.
“The Arab Spring would be killed in the crib if Qaddafi were allowed to wipe out his citizens,” wrote Rice, who currently serves in Biden’s cabinet as director of the U.S. domestic policy counsel. “I maintained that President Obama should not allow what could be perceived as a Rwanda to occur—a moment when the world looked to the U.S. for leadership, and we blinked.”
Rice’s backers included many younger advisors, some of whom are back in the Biden administration, including Blinken and Samantha Power, Biden’s pick to serve as the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had initially expressed reservations about the use of force in Libya but was heavily lobbied by Arab and European leaders on a trip to Paris on March 15, 2011. She was now on board.
“I don’t remember anyone being enthusiastic about this,” recalled Feltman. “It wasn’t like there were people who were gung-ho about going into Libya. It was sort of like this is the least bad option.”
In the end, Obama agreed to use U.S. forces to protect civilians, provided three conditions were met: The U.N. Security Council must authorize it; Arab countries must agree to participate; and Europeans must agree to shoulder military operation responsibility after the United States established air superiority.
The resolution ultimately passed on March 17, 2011 by a vote of 10 to zero. Brazil, China, Germany, India, and Russia abstained. Dressed in a lime green jacket—a nod to St. Patrick’s Day but one which was interpreted by many Libyans as an homage to the flag of the Libyan resistance—Rice said: “This council’s purpose is clear: to protect innocent civilians.”
In the clearest sign of Qaddafi’s growing isolation, his once loyal U.N. envoy, Shalgham, turned on his leader, appealing to the 15-nation council to halt Qaddafi’s killing spree and “save Libya.”
“Today I listen to him telling his people either I rule over you or I kill you,” a tearful Shalgham told the council. “I tell my brother Qaddafi: Leave the Libyans alone.”
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. He is Foreign Policy’s award-winning, United Nations-based senior diplomatic reporter. He received the 2011 National Magazine Award for his blog reporting at FP. Before coming to FP, Lynch worked for more than a decade for the Washington Post. He previously reported for the Boston Globe. Lynch has an undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.