Article written

  • on 14.04.2012
  • at 03:00 PM
  • by Randa Ghazy

NATO’s intervention in Libya was a mistake 0

Christian Caryl of Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab has written a balanced and thoughtful piece that asks whether NATO’s intervention in Libya deserves the blame for precipitating the current chaos in Mali. Mali’s troubles include a(n initially) Tuareg-led rebellion in the north and a coup inspired partly by the northern war; the coup has now given way to an ostensibly civilian-led transition that will likely be rocky.

Caryl calls the Libyan civil war “a proximate cause for the success of the Tuareg rebellion.” As to the question of whether not just the general crisis in Libya, but also the Western intervention against Qadhafi specifically, is responsible for events in Mali, Caryl’s answer is more qualified.

Caryl quotes Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, who argues that Western powers may have been able to do more to prevent the flow of weapons out of Libya. Caryl ends with the exhortation, “Even in situations where there is ample justification for using force against dictators or war criminals, policymakers would be well-advised to take a good look at the possible negative side effects of their actions.”

I would like to endorse Caryl’s position (disclosure: Caryl spoke to me when he was writing the piece) and offer my own personal view that NATO’s intervention in Libya was a mistake (Caryl does not state this view and my views on that point are mine alone).

I felt at the time of the intervention that it was a bad move and I believe subsequent events have added weight to that perspective. It is important to assess the outcome of the intervention in Libya both for an understanding of events in North Africa and the Sahel but also because future interventions will be debated, and undertaken, some of them on the premise that Libya represents a success.

I would cite two trends as evidence that the intervention was a mistake: instability inside Libya and fallout in the region.

While the civil war would have produced some chaos regardless, I think the chances are strong that without the Western intervention, Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s side would have defeated the rebels and Qadhafi would have remained in power, an outcome that would have reduced the resulting regional chaos.

Who knows, right? In the case of a world where Qadhafi survived and triumphed, we’re talking counterfactuals, and in the present, we’re talking about immensely complicated political situations where multiple factors are present.

It’s not an experiment in a laboratory that we can run again and again to see what permutations would have caused what precise outcomes. We have to work with flawed and incomplete evidence, surfacing, disappearing, and shifting in real time. Then we cobble together interpretations of that evidence.

But here is the evidence I see.

In Libya:

Protesters are in the streets daily, demanding services and accusing council members of being as corrupt as their Gaddafi predecessors. Officials are similarly quick to describe protesters as puppets of pro-Gaddafi elements.

The Transitional National Council, hastily formed during the early days of the revolt by tribal elders and local leaders, is struggling to replace itself with a representative government. Its flowchart of reforms describes a 20-month process from the drafting of a new constitution to the election of a national legislature.

But Libyans are not in a methodical mood. In Misurata, which saw some of the war’s most intense fighting, the local militia booted the Transitional National Council and held its own election months ahead of schedule.

In Tripoli, the traffic lights work, but are universally ignored.

“Why do you need an AK-47 to tame the traffic?” Sabri Issa, a petroleum services company owner, asked while watching four young militia fighters gruffly directing the clots of cars around Martyrs Square, their automatic rifles waving at windshield height. Two police officers sat in their car a few yards away. “They do nothing to control these guys,” Issa said. “We have a government in name only.”

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