Seven months after NATO's misguided war in Libya began, Moammar Gadhafi has been killed. While there has not been as much celebration of this in the West as there might have been before the Iraq war, the conventional wisdom seems to be that this outcome has proved the intervention to be right because it "worked." However, far from vindicating the decision to attack Libya, Gadhafi's bloody end represents much of what was wrong with the intervention from the start.
Instead of protecting the population of Libya — which is what the U.N. authorized — the West's intervention allowed the conflict to continue and consume perhaps as many as 30,000 Libyan lives, including many thousands of civilians, in addition to tens of thousands wounded and hundreds of thousands displaced. Rather than the "limited" war presented by the intervention's defenders, it immediately expanded into a policy of regime change. The official goal of protecting civilians was subordinated very early on to the real purpose of the war — namely, the destruction of the existing government and the elimination of its leaders.
Contrary to the hope that Libya would provide a deterrent to regime violence elsewhere, the political fallout from the war has stalled any international response to Syria's crackdown. By exceeding the U.N. mandate they received in March, the U.S. and its allies have poisoned emerging democratic powers such as India and Brazil against taking any action in other countries. Libya has confirmed every skeptic's worst fears that in practice, the "responsibility to protect" is little more than a pretext for toppling vulnerable governments.
Libya has confirmed every skeptic's worst fears that in practice, the "responsibility to protect" is little more than a pretext for toppling vulnerable governments.
Equally troubling from an American perspective is the ease with which the current administration launched a war against a government that had abandoned its former hostility, renounced unconventional weapons and terrorism, and provided some degree of security cooperation to the U.S. Pariah states now have no incentive to negotiate similar deals with the U.S. and its allies, and they have clear incentives to acquire the means of deterring a future intervention. This reduces diplomatic and political options in coping with these states in the future and makes conflicts with some of them more likely.
U.S. foreign policy has already become very militarized in the last decade, and the quick resort to the use of force in this instance significantly lowers the bar to justify future military action. The sidelining of Congress and the American public on the Libya war continues an increasing and unhealthy tendency of the executive to use military force without authorization or respect for constitutional requirements. The executive now appears to be free of all constraints as to when and how to use force abroad, so long as the action can be deemed a success. And there are evidently no consequences for openly waging an illegal war.
The U.S. and our allies attacked a government that had done nothing to endanger international peace and security. It posed no threat at all to any NATO nation. No Western security interests were served by this war, and some may have been harmed as a result. Successfully deposing Gadhafi is bound to encourage future administrations to take similar risks. The U.S. and our allies may not always be so lucky in targeting such an unusually weak, isolated state.
While Gadhafi's death will mark the end of Western military involvement in Libya, we should not assume that it means that Libya will not be wracked by violence for months or years to come. We should not forget that the worst of the post-invasion violence in Iraq came well after Saddam Hussein's capture and execution. Just as it was Iraqi civilians who bore the brunt of the war over the last eight years, it has been and continues to be Libyan civilians who are suffering the most from prolonged conflict.
When dictatorships are violently overthrown, their successor regimes tend to devolve into some form of authoritarian government. Political culture, weak institutions, and post-conflict disorder all make it unlikely that Libya will be that much freer in the years to come than it was under Gadhafi. As in Iraq, it is questionable whether the possible gains will be worth the real losses that have already been and will continue to be suffered. As in Kosovo, which is often wrongly held up as a model of "successful" intervention, the post-war regime is liable to be criminal and corrupt. Twenty years ago, the liberation of Eritrea and Ethiopia from the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu was an inspiring story that very soon degenerated into authoritarianism and war. There is no reason to think that Libya's story will be all that different.