There is a lot going on this week given that Tuesday marks the beginning of the United Nations General Assembly’s annual general debate. I cannot actually remember when something substantive happened during these meetings, but hopefully this year will be different as world leaders gather ahead of the debate for a summit called “Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.”
The topic has received a lot of attention for obvious reasons, but the breakdown of the Syrian cease-fire, which was never much of a cessation of fighting, will likely overshadow much of anything else. Add to the ongoing carnage in Syria the recent kerfuffle over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments suggesting that those who oppose settlements in the West Bank support ethnic cleaning, the calamity of Egypt’s inability to import wheat because of an unreasonable standard concerning the ergot fungus, dueling op-eds between the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers over which country has contributed more to transnational terrorism, and an apparent deeper Turkish incursion into Syria and, well, it is just another week in the Middle East. Lost in all of the ongoing developments was the release of the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s report entitled “Libya: Examination of Intervention and Collapse and the UK’s Future Policy Options.” Forget the clunky title; this forty-two-page document is an important read. It is exceedingly frank in a way that has eluded official American discussions of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and details—whether intentionally or not—how the British, French, and American governments repeated in Libya in 2011 many of the mistakes that had led the United States and coalition forces into Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
It goes without saying that the parliamentary committee started from the premise that the intervention in Libya proved to be an unmitigated disaster. There are a few analysts who believe otherwise, but it is hard to argue with the fragmentation of the country, the existence of two (or three) warring governments, a myriad of militias, and the precipitous decline in per capita gross domestic product (GDP). According to the United Nations, almost half of Libya’s population is in need of protection and humanitarian assistance. Also, Libya is a source of regional instability with large numbers of weapons flowing out from former strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi’s arsenal, which was used to fuel conflicts around the region but especially in Tunisia and Egypt.
So how did we get to this moment? For those who do not remember, the impetus for intervening in Libya was the fear that Qaddafi’s forces would massacre his opponents in the eastern city of Benghazi, a hotbed of the February 17, 2011, uprising. Proponents of military action argued that given the blood that Qaddafi promised to shed, it was incumbent upon other countries to protect Libyans from their own leader. The authors of the House of Commons’ report have cast a critical eye on this rationale, arguing that the intervention, which began in March 2011 and lasted through the following fall, was both doomed to fail and contributed directly to Libya’s current sorry state for the following reasons:
- The Influence of Exiles—According to the report, “a quorum of respectable Libyans” greatly inflated the threat that Qaddafi and his forces posed to civilians. Neither British nor French officials seriously questioned these assertions, which, in all fairness, the Libyan leader reinforced his with blood curdling rhetoric about his plans for Benghazi. Still, the pattern of the conflict as it played out suggested that as Qaddafi loyalists moved toward Benghazi, they had not specifically targeted civilians. The number of women and children killed was actually quite low—considerably lower than in Syria once the uprising in that country became militarized at around the same time. There may still have been good reason to intervene militarily, but the responsibility to protect civilians does not seem to be one of them. Rather, like Ahmed Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles who fed misleading information to their American interlocutors that in part justified the American invasion of Iraq, Libyan exiles played British, French, and, by extension, American officials. Like the Iraqis before them, these Libyans advanced a set of ideas that decision-makers in London, Paris, and Washington were either predisposed to believe or deemed plausible, setting in motion military operations that served the political interests of Qaddafi’s opponents but not necessarily those of the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. The exiles also assured British and French officials, in the words of the report, “that militant Islamist militias would not benefit from the rebellion.” It was an extraordinary statement given the existence of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which predated the 2011 uprising, and the number of Libyans who, the report suggests, had cut their teeth during the Iraqi insurgency and in Afghanistan.
- The Problem with Intelligence—British lawmakers also found problems with the intelligence going into the Libyan intervention. Yet unlike in the United States, where “faulty intelligence” has become the accepted rationale for a defective policy, the British focus on the fact that the intelligence concerning the uprising specifically and on how Libyan society functioned more generally was spotty. The blind spots in Libya were not willful—the country had been a black hole to many for the previous four decades, though the United Kingdom had reestablished diplomatic relations in 1999—but not unlike American policymakers in 2002 and 2003, the British and the French seemed not to have much use for intelligence products. The very fact that the information they were getting from their spies and diplomats was incomplete should have given then Prime Minster David Cameron and then President Nicolas Sarkozy pause, but as the House of Commons’ report indicates, intelligence on Libya was not a factor in their decision making.
- It Does Not Matter What Others Think—When Cameron became prime minister in May 2010, he set up a National Security Council. This was not just because it is cool to have a National Security Council like U.S. presidents, but also to discipline the British policy process, which the report describes as “informal” during the Tony Blair years. The process Cameron set up for evaluating policy options did not work, however. When in the process of their inquiry, members of the House of Commons asked Lord Richard of Herstmonceux, the British chief of the General Staff, if he thought the intervention in Libya was in the United Kingdom’s national interest, he replied, “the Prime Minister felt it was in our national interest.” This may be self-serving, but it may also reflect the fact that Cameron (and Sarkozy) made the decision to undertake military operations with little interest in alternatives or the downside scenarios of the use of force. Does that sound familiar?
- Rebuilding Will Be a Snap—I was still a graduate student when the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. During the run up to the war, I would take a break from dissertation writing to watch C-SPAN and scarf down some food. My brain is seared with the memory of watching then Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz telling a Congressional committee that the reconstruction of Iraq would be a relatively easy undertaking because of the country’s wealth, talented people, and good infrastructure. Accordingly, it was a project that would not require a significant investment in American time or resources because the Iraqis would lead the effort. I remember dropping my turkey sandwich in my lap at those jaw-dropping statements. One would think that people would avoid making similar kinds of assertions ever again, but memories are short. According to the House of Commons’ investigation into the collapse of Libya after Qaddafi, Sir Dominic Asquith, the former British ambassador to Tripoli, revealed that reconstruction would not pose a major problem because “Libya, with a small population of roughly 6 million would have considerable assets at its disposal and the provision of money or funding was not the highest priority.” Ultimately, though, the British found what the Americans had found in Iraq: a central government with little or no ability to carry out the enormously complex tasks of reconstruction, made even more difficult because of unanticipated political and security problems.
The military operation in Libya also suffered from mission creep; it was originally conceived of as a no-fly zone, but with the help of an American effort to build more flexibility into United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, it became an exercise in regime change. This was not a problem in Iraq, where U.S. operations were specifically intended to change Iraq’s political order. It does not matter much, however. The same flawed justifications, bad decision-making processes, and wishful thinking that went into Operation Iraqi Freedom were abundantly clear in the military intervention in Libya, with similarly devastating results. It is a cliché to say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but some clichés are true. In the meantime, Libya has failed.