Libya is commonly counted as a success story among the ongoing Arab uprisings. NATO bombing, the story goes, saved thousands of lives and allowed Libyans to overthrow the absurd and murderous Muammar Gaddafi. The intervention proves that the West has aligned its interests in the Arab world with its values — and may even be a measure of redemption for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the deeper colonial past.
Not much of this comforting tale rings true.
The regime Gaddafi led was violent and decrepit. It did, however, have a support base that, albeit narrow, was broader than those of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. Libyans were also divided, to some degree, by long-standing regional and tribal claims, some of which Gaddafi’s regime had exploited to consolidate its rule. The situation a year ago was part popular uprising, part civil war. NATO’s intervention seems to have strengthened the latter half of the equation.
It’s far from clear that NATO warplanes saved lives. When Libya’s deputy UN ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi warned of “genocide” as he defected from the regime in February 2011, the death toll was 233, according to Human Rights Watch. Estimates of the total number dead are now all over the map and run as high as 30,000, but all sources agree that most of these people were killed after the UN Security Council authorized the NATO sorties on March 17.
No one knows how many were civilians, or how many died under NATO bombs, but NATO and allies like Qatar badly overstepped the stricture to “protect civilians” laid out in the UN Security Council resolution. They ignored, for instance, the arms embargo stipulated in the previous resolution, supplying weapons, training, and in the end tactical instructions to the rebels.
The overall effect of the intervention was thus to intensify and prolong the combat on the ground rather than end it swiftly. And the long-term consequences for Libya grossly contradict the NATO mission’s spirit.
Since NATO departed and the Libya story has faded from the headlines, the arms that flowed into the country have fueled nearly continuous fighting. The new Libyan government recognized by the West doesn’t control the country. No one does. The former rebels have splintered into hundreds of armed bands that are taking grisly revenge upon loyalists and occasionally squabbling with each other. There are 250 militias in the city of Misrata alone.
In one instance in Sirte, where Misrata militias held sway, Human Rights Watch documented the massacre of 53 men — some of whose hands were bound. In October, the Misrata gunmen emptied an entire town, Tawergha, displacing some 30,000 people in retribution for the residents’ alleged backing of Gaddafi. The militias continue to block Tawerghans and neighboring villagers from returning to their homes, many of which have been torched or looted.
In 2011, Western powers said intervention was necessary to stop a “bloodbath” in Benghazi, but they have said little about the rampant abuses since Gaddafi fell. The very vagueness of the casualty figures casts a shadow upon the humanitarian motives said to underlie the NATO intervention. Like the United States in Iraq, no one will “do body counts” in Libya. Presumably, the results would be too embarrassing.
The story here isn’t, of course, that Gaddafi was an innocent victim. His regime’s crackdown on the initial uprising in the east was brutal. And loyalist units undoubtedly killed many civilians in their attempts to quash the armed revolt, not least during the siege of Misrata that hardened so many young men there into militia members.
The lesson of Libya is rather that outside military force isn’t the only — and is very rarely the best — way to save lives, civilian or otherwise, certainly not in a civil war. The West might have tried diplomacy or other means. It chose instead to install rebels who promised better terms for oil companies and investors. That fact, and the mayhem in Libya in the interim, will be front and center in how the NATO intervention is remembered.