JHI on the Issues 2016: Intervention in Libya

Candidate Statement: During the Commander-in-Chief Forum on September 7, 2016, Secretary Clinton defended her decision to advocate for military intervention in Libya. Clinton stated: “And I think taking that action [military intervention] was the right decision. Not taking it, and permitting there to be an ongoing civil war in Libya, would have been as dangerous and threatening as what we are now seeing in Syria.” Donald Trump has criticized her for this decision, calling the intervention “disastrous” and “a terrible mistake,” but is also on the record as supporting the intervention.

Summary:  Libya today is not much more stable than Syria because of poor planning and execution following the removal of Muammar Gaddafi. From the outset, the Obama administration repeatedly stressed the limits of American involvement in Libya, “leading from behind.”  Intervention would establish a no-fly zone, deliver humanitarian aid, and let the Libyans sort out the rest, but would be coupled with calls for Gaddafi to step down.  The failure to stabilize Libya following Gaddafi’s removal created an environment where revolutionary militias that had yet to demobilize, disarm, and reintegrate into Libyan society turned against one other, which drove civil war and provided an opening for ISIS to establish a significant foothold in the country.  Because Libya has become a failed state, terrorists will continue to establish safe havens, control Libya’s vast potential wealth, and contribute to regional insecurity.

Talking Points:

  • The Obama administration came to office criticizing President Bush for pursuing “regime change” in Iraq.  In Libya, the administration’s “lead from behind” strategy of limited intervention and disengagement effectively facilitated “regime change” and left a security vacuum in Libya that is still being exploited by terrorists today.
  • The administration demonstrated little interest in dedicating the necessary resources to stabilize Libya following Gaddafi’s removal and was unwilling to recognize that the growing terrorist threat would require an increased U.S. and NATO presence.
  • For the first time since virtually any military intervention after World War II, there were no peacekeepers or trainers, and no U.S. advisers sent to the conflict zone for postwar stabilization and reconstruction, ultimately depriving the United States and NATO of leverage with Libya’s emerging political leaders.
  • Due in part to U.S. and European reluctance to play a more active role in stabilization, by 2012, the Libyan government had essentially failed to demobilize, disarm, and reintegrate the revolutionary militias that had fought against Gaddafi. These groups then began fighting each other, sparking a civil war that would displace thousands and provide an opening for ISIS to establish a foothold.
  • In June, U.S. government officials estimated that ISIS had some 4,000-6,000 militants in the country and identified it as a potential fall-back base should the group lose its territory in the Levant. To counteract the growing threat, President Obama has deployed special operations troops to assist Libyan government forces. However, the central government is split between two groups both claiming they are the legitimate national government.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • What if anything should the U.S. do to stabilize Libya? What should it do to prevent ISIS from further developing a stronghold there?
  • The security situation in Libya directly affects our European allies much more than the United States, so what is the appropriate role for the United States and EU/NATO to play in addressing mass migration flows from Libya to Europe? What role should it play in ensuring North African (including Egypt’s) security by curbing weapons and fighter flows through Libya? What role should other regional actors play?
  • What is the primary lesson you take away from the Obama administration’s failed intervention and the resulting consequences in Libya? How would you have responded differently?
  • Clinton often refers to Libya as a “work in progress,” but by what measure and timeframe should intervention be judged a success?

Analysis: Libya is still struggling to emerge from a civil war, in part due to the failure of the Obama administration and the international community’s post-conflict planning and assistance.  The administration’s assumption that the post-conflict political culture and institutions could be left to evolve on their own after the removal of 40 years of dictatorship under Muammar Gaddafi was wrong.

  • Libyan political power returned to local authorities, tribes, and militia following Gaddafi’s ouster, but the failure to demobilize, disarm, and reintegrate revolutionary militias into new political institutions resulted in the groups turning on one another to achieve their political ends through violence.
  • The lack of Western peacekeepers, advisers, and trainers meant that the newly formed government not only failed to provide security but also to rebuild the country’s wealth and civil society. Assistance is still needed to build national institutions, especially those related to re-building the country’s wealth.  Unlike Yemen, for example, Libya has considerable “sweet oil” and other natural resources.
  • Without an active American diplomatic, humanitarian, and security presence on the ground, there was little leverage over Libya’s new political leaders and the future security situation of the country.
  • Regional governments are interfering financially and militarily in Libya.  Egypt and the UAE support the official government in Tobruk, while Qatar supports the militias backing the Tripoli government.
  • The U.S. cannot ignore Libya today because of the presence of terrorists groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS, weapons smuggling, and human trafficking.  Libya is also a primary launching point for illegal immigrants to flee from Africa to Europe, resulting in a growing humanitarian crisis as overcrowded boats capsize and hundreds die. 
  • Despite media characterizations, the Libya conflict is not a pro-Western, internationally recognized government fighting Muslim extremists who have taken over Tripoli.  It is true, though, that some militias backing the rebel government in Tripoli are radical. A majority of the Libyan population likely believes Islam and Islamic parties should play a prominent political role. 
  • For more on how the U.S. should use its military to deal with growing global instability, read JHI’s chapter on defense strategy in Choosing to Lead.