Mission Accomplished in Libya

A couple of years ago, I suggested that

Involvement of allies reduces the requirement for U.S. military forces, and a show of international solidarity could alleviate the need for armed intervention. You might also raise the issue of why we’re always the ones trundling our military forces around the world searching for a place to replay the Battle of the Bulge. Couldn’t we and our allies learn some lessons from the Vietnamese, Afghans and Iraqis that we could use in those conflicts that do pop up? (Pentagon Labyrinth, p. 70)

And apparently we did.  As summarized by Ivo Daalder and Admiral James Stavridis (US permanent rep to NATO and SACEUR, respectively):

… an historic victory for the people of Libya who, with NATO’s help, transformed their country from an international pariah into a nation with the potential to become a productive partner with the West. (“NATO’s Success In Libya,” Intl. Herald Trib, 31 Oct 2011)

We achieved our objectives, avoided an occupation, suffered no US casualties, lost no aircraft, tanks, or HUMVEEs, and spent a trivial amount of money. So why don’t I feel like gloating?

One reason might be that from their “lessons learned,” it’s clear that NATO believes that it has found a new raison d’être and a template for accomplishing it:

Demonstrable need. Regional support. A sound legal basis. These are what made intervention necessary. NATO is what made successful intervention possible.

It’s always nice when the home team wins, but in the interest of a balanced after-action report, one might add a few caveats,

  1. Libya had one of the more incompetent militaries on the planet.  Like any typical Third World military, it was a significant threat only to its own population.
  2. “Regional support” was spotty to say the least. With the sole exception of Morocco, no African nation participated in the operation.
  3. Apparently Qadhaafi enjoyed substantial support within Libya until near the end of the 8-month civil war and NATO bombing campaign.  These people are still there.
  4. In order to liberate the country, we destroyed 6,000 targets, according to Daalder and Stavridis, and from the scenes of destruction, Qadhaafi’s supporters and the victorious rebels destroyed many, many more. Casualties are unknown but certainly number in the thousands.
  5. Oil exports to finance rebuilding may not reach pre-war levels for at least two years, and some estimates predict much longer.

I have no way to do the calculus to show whether the results were worth the price. Perhaps “the potential to become a productive partner with the West” is return enough for our modest expense, and we can only and sincerely hope that it proves sufficient for the Libyans.

Even if Libya evolves bloodlessly into a Maghrebian Turkey, we need to be most careful about drawing conclusions based on this one episode. As Fabius so often reminds us, the plural of anecdote is not “data.”

Libya, after all, had some attributes that made it an attractive candidate for NATO intervention:

  1. Libya lies less than 300 miles from NATO territory.
  2. Most of Libya’s population lives within a few hundred kilometers of the coast
  3. Deserts, some 90% of the country, make for good targeting.  Libyan forces were destroyed, unlike the Serbian Army, which withstood some 78 days of NATO air onslaught in 1999 and then withdrew in good order and practically unscathed.
  4. Qadhaafi had no allies of any consequence within easy reach (contrast with the Taliban, for example)
  5. Qadhaafi was unable to wage the type of guerrilla / insurgent warfare that developed nations find so difficult to counter.  His (conventional) military just provided convenient target sets.

So let’s assist the Libyans in rebuilding their country in any way we can — think Marshall Plan — and reserve for ourselves a healthy dose of humility and perhaps a heartfelt sigh of relief.

16 thoughts on “Mission Accomplished in Libya

  1. Do not declare victory until Libya has a stable pro-West regime (you’ll notice that I didn’t say anything about democracy) that has sufficient popular support to be a valid trading partner and will honor its contracts, both social and business-related.

    It is easy to destroy a third world government, it is much harder to create a new one from the broken pieces of the old regime.

    You’ll notice that Ghadaffi’s regime had nearly all of the characteristics I described in the first paragraph until the West turned on him. I’m not supporting the whack-job, I’m just noting that a lesson other third world leaders will learn from this affair is that Western powers are reliable allies until the moment they attack you.

    1. Pluto — thanks. That’s the fallacy behind “nation building”: no outsider knows how to do it. The best we can do is provide resources at the rate their economy can assimilate them (i.e., without corruption getting totally out hand) and let them do the rebuilding.

  2. Two more points:

    1) Drug smugglers already travel from West Africa up through the Sahara to transport cocaine and other narcotics into Europe. I would be very surprised if they are not already exploiting Libya’s disorder.

    2) Khadaffi was actually highly regarded within Africa because he promoted many programs to benefit people in that continent. He will be missed by those Africans who view either US or Chinese aid with suspicion.

  3. You make a good point, Chet, that we avoided casualties and ground troops, we got our allies involved, we didn’t spend too much money, and we managed to impose our will. But how would you rate the damage to our credibility? We bombed civilians to “protect civilians” and everyone knows it.

    1. Matt — thanks. Hard to argue against your point, but I’m not sure how much credibility we had to begin with. After Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the world must have figured out that we’re going to do what we want to do and leave the credibility problem to the PR folks.

  4. Khaddafi was one of America’s greatest all-time enemies in the middle east because he was the very first of the middle eastern autocrats to nationalize western oil interests wayyyyyyyyy back in 1969. Kkaddafi’s bold move in 1969 gave all the other middle eastern oil producers the idea to nationalize their foreign oil operations. Americans and their oil oligarchs have not forgotten that. So Khaddafi was in our sights regardless of the cost-benefit analysis and regardless of the geopolitical results.

    As with the Iranian mullahs, America’s animus toward Kkaddafi was personal and cultural and had little to do with Castlereigh-style realpolitik.

  5. mclaren — good point, to which one could add the quadrupling of prices after the oil embargoes of the 70s, the Pan Am bombing, and a consistent policy of hostility to the peace process. And just being a general nut case right on the borders of Europe. Ironically, he had seemed to reform his policies towards the West in recent years. My guess is that if it weren’t for the Arab Spring uprisings, which made it difficult for the West not to support the opposition, he’d be in power today.

    The genie of nationalization had been out of the bottle at least since Mossedegh in Iran.

  6. I dunno, Chet, you make development sound easy, like it will be just like the Marshall plan. Personally I would make a distinction between classic occupation-rebuilding scenarios like Phillipines, Germany, Japan, and more recent scenarios like Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly Libya. In the former 3 scenarios the conquerors (us) achieved stability, and development followed. But in the latter three?

    The level of devastation we inflicted on Germany and Japan was much higher than what we have been willing to do in our recent conquests, but our atrocities in the Phillippines are about on par with what the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has wrought. So our willingness to inflict destruction is apparently not the key difference. But something is different. Development worked in the classic cases, but doesn’t seem to be working in our recent adventures. What makes you think Libya might break the trend?

    1. I would question the assumption on your part that the conquerors achieved stability.

      Germany & Japan built upon their old traditions of democracy and state bureaucracy to rebuilt their countries as best as able after the war. Of couse the conquerors could affect the rebuilding negatively like the Western allies’ attempt to implement the Morgenthau plan.

      I’m not familiar with the Phillipines, but were there any great etnic tensions to mess up the nation building process?

    2. Rune – I think that the question of pre-existing institutions that you bring up is certainly relevant. The sense of “stability” that I was referring to here is the fact that there was no significant resistance after the main war was over. Unrest in the Phillippines was (brutally) brought under control within a few years, and an American-dominated regime proceeded to build democratic institutions and schools and rubber-stamp favorable business deals for American companies for the next several decades.

      The Phillippines are ethnically and linguistically diverse, but the most relevant division is Catholic-Muslim. As far as I know, the larger, Catholic islands coalesced pretty readily, first in rebellion against the US, then under the new US-instituted regime. But southern islands like Mindanao have always had some separatist tendencies, and we still have a handful of troops there helping the national government fight Islamists and communists.

  7. Well, Matt, as I suggested to Pluto:

    “That’s the fallacy behind “nation building”: no outsider knows how to do it. The best we can do is provide resources at the rate their economy can assimilate them (i.e., without corruption getting totally out hand) and let them do the rebuilding.”

    Insiders can do it, but they’ll need help with recapitalization and opening lines of credit so that resources can flow into the country. That we can do.

  8. @ Chet

    Somehow I don’t feel like fatalism is the answer. We’re talking about a concrete difference in results: success in the Phillippines, and failure in Iraq.

    People don’t like conquerors, generally. They’re mean and they smash stuff up. Really the only benefit that conquerors can bring to their prey is the promise of setting up superior institutions that will bring prosperity down the road. The conquerors who manage to do this, are usually forgiven in the long run.

    If our only line is “Well gee, nation-building is hurd, but we’ll shore throw some munny at it and hope for the best!”…. well, I don’t think this will inspire much confidence.

  9. Even a bully derives more power from his reputation than from his physical strength. The grumbling against the strong when they triumph and the snickering against the arrogant when they stumble have two very distinct tones. We should be very concerned about what the rest of the world thinks of us, especially if we are on top of it.

  10. So you’re suggesting that we should act in ways that:

    1. Support our national goal
    2. Pump-up our resolve, drain-away adversaries’ resolve, and attract the uncommitted
    3. End conflicts on favorable terms, while
    4. Ensuring that conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict?

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