This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute Quarterly Review.
The grotesque display of Muammar Qaddafi’s bloodied corpse in Sirte, Libya, where he was captured and killed, and later in a Misrata meat locker, did little to build confidence in the commitment of Libya’s rebels to due process and the rule of law. It did, however, represent a clear culmination of the Libyan revolution. In recent years, we have seen few civil wars end with such devastatingly definitive victories.
This outcome also provided some vindication to Western leaders who initially pressed for military action last March, when Qaddafi threatened to overrun the city of Benghazi and to send his forces door to door to hunt down regime opponents. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron led the calls for action. US President Barack Obama eventually joined their cause and lent America’s diplomatic weight to the task of achieving a UN Security Council resolution authorizing intervention; and NATO, in spite of serious intra-alliance differences, succeeded in managing an effective aerial campaign. Qaddafi’s demise and the rebel victory belied the warnings of commentators who predicted that Sarkozy’s and Cameron’s enthusiasm for intervention would result in NATO troops sinking into another quagmire of endless, needless war.
This success, however, was a qualified one, both for the Libyan rebels and for the NATO allies. It was a victory with asterisks, and these asterisks may eventually turn out to be more important than they appear at present.
The first asterisk is that Libyan rebels would likely not have prevailed without support from the world’s most powerful air forces. Given that many people in that part of the world are understandably sensitive to the intrusions of outsiders, especially former colonial powers, both the rebels and NATO shared an interest in playing down the determinative role of Western air power. Doing so allowed rebel leaders to sustain the narrative of Libyan resistance and victory, which is, in effect, the ‘founding story’ of the post-Qaddafi Libyan state, or what Libyans themselves now call the ‘new’ Libya. If events had unfolded differently – say, if the NATO air strike on the column of vehicles carrying Qaddafi out of Sirte had killed the Libyan leader, rather than forcing him into the hands of Libyan rebels who then killed him – the narrative of home-grown victory would have been put at risk. As it turned out, NATO was either very well-informed, or very lucky, or both, because its instrumental part in halting Qaddafi’s escape has been overshadowed by images of Libyans doing the dirty work themselves.
However, the asterisk remains, and if Qaddafi’s former loyalists were ever to organize into opposition, armed or otherwise, they might use the rebels’ dependence on Western ‘imperialist’ powers against them. Right now, with Libyans celebrating their former leader’s demise, that scenario is hard to imagine, but political conditions in Libya, as elsewhere, can change unpredictably and new information about the conduct of the war might emerge.
The second asterisk qualifies NATO’s success. Yes, the alliance overcame internal divisions, but it did so in part because the conflict ended when it did. During the long summer months of stalemate in Libya, the resolve of some NATO members, including Italy, began to wobble. Some members, such as Germany, had never contributed to the intervention in the first place, but losing the support of those who had signed on would have been damaging to the alliance’s campaign, and it is not clear how much longer the alliance could have kept its fighting coalition together if this stalemate had continued. At the very least, this raises questions about NATO’s ability to sustain internal political support for such operations in the future.
The third asterisk relates to the United Nations and the apparent success of its effort to protect Libyan civilians from Qaddafi’s forces. Security Council resolution 1973 represented the first major implementation of the decade-old Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine: it authorized armed force “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” Given the sustained resistance of many states to the idea of R2P in recent years, it was quite amazing that none of the 15 members of the Security Council – including permanent members Russia and China, and regional powers South Africa, Nigeria and Brazil – voted against resolution 1973.
Initially, NATO’s UN-authorized air operation focused on protecting the civilians of Benghazi, who were at immediate risk from Qaddafi’s forces. The initial wave of airstrikes also destroyed much of Libya’s air defence system so that NATO planes would not be endangered. Later, however, when a stalemate developed on the ground between the rebels and regime loyalists, NATO found itself in an increasingly untenable situation. As noted above, political support for the mission was slipping in some NATO countries; yet, to stop the operation would almost certainly have meant the defeat of the rebels and renewed threats against the same civilians the UN and NATO had pledged to protect.
In the face of this conundrum, NATO expanded its interpretation of resolution 1973 and broadened the scope of its bombing to include virtually all Libyan military targets, from command and control facilities in Tripoli to armoured vehicles, wherever they might appear. In effect, the mission became one of regime change, even though NATO insisted that it bombed only to protect civilians. This fiction fooled few observers and it generated a sharp reproof from some of the countries, including Russia and South Africa, that had initially supported (or, at least, not opposed) the resolution’s implementation of the R2P doctrine, but who now felt that they had been misled.
The implication of this asterisk is that securing passage of future R2P resolutions through the UN Security Council may be considerably more difficult. Indeed, the Libya intervention may have been the first and last major R2P intervention authorized by the United Nations.