My friend Claire Berlinski has a post on the Ricochet blog, “Mass grave in the Mediterranean,” in which she favorably refers to Adam Garfinkle’s writings, on The American Interest website, on the Obama administration’s Libya intervention. Garfinkle was a strong opponent of the intervention and is feeling vindicated on account of his apparent clairvoyance as to how things would turn out there. I have a few issues with his POV, though, which I wrote to Claire in an email. But instead of sending the mail, I’m posting it here on AWAV instead, where others (e.g. Bob B.) can eventually weigh in:
On the Libya intervention, Adam Garfinkle has the satisfaction of saying he was right from the beginning—it’s always gratifying to be able to do that—but Libya was, in fact, a roll of the dice. Or a coin flip (a better metaphor). It was a 50-50 proposition (in terms of arguments for intervention vs. against). I wrote this four years ago almost to the day (here) and would write it again today.
There are a few things Garfinkle doesn’t consider, or maybe downplays (as I’m maxed out on my quota of free American Interest articles, I can’t go back and verify what precisely he said at the time or since). First, the Obama administration was divided on the wisdom of intervening in Libya but its hand was forced by Sarkozy and Cameron (in the same way as Clinton’s was by Chirac and Blair in Kosovo). But as it was clear that it would merely be a bombing campaign—no ground troops—the decision was relatively easy (and particularly as there was no objection from Russia or the Arab states, Algeria excepted; Qadhafi’s utter isolation in the Arab world, including in Arab public opinion, was striking; so the US had nothing to worry about in that department).
Second, there already was an insurgency/civil war underway and that would have worsened had the US not intervened. It is entirely possible—even likely—that the situation we’re witnessing in Libya today would have happened anyway (and with many more Libyans having been killed in the process). In other words, the US intervention may have merely hastened a possibly inevitable outcome.
Third, there is no reason to believe that Libya would be an island of stability today had Qadhafi prevailed in the civil war—with the inevitable massacres and exactions—for the simple reason that Qadhafi had always been a source of instability. A comparison with Iraq is useful here. Qadhafi’s regime was, in fact, far worse than Saddam Hussein’s; the internal repression and brutality of the two regimes were on a par—they were equally bad in both—but Qadhafi meddled in the affairs of other countries—in the Maghreb and West Africa—and generally wreaked havoc in a way that Saddam did not (with two big exceptions, of course, in 1980 and 1990, when he grossly miscalculated). And Qadhafi was a sponsor of international terrorism—targeting Americans and Europeans—in a way Saddam’s regime never was. No act of terrorism in Europe from the mid 1970s onward can be traced back to Baghdad (unlike to Tripoli, Tehran, or Damascus). So there is no a priori reason to assume that we would not be witnessing the current migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean if Qadhafi were still in power.
N.B. The disaster in Libya is due to the collapse of the Libyan state. But the collapse of the Libyan state was not brought about by the US intervention or events set in motion by this. It was brought about by Qadhafi. Qadhafi wrecked what existed of a state in Libya. Qadhafi patrimonialized the Libyan state—concentrating total power in the hands of his immediate family—to an extent unseen in an Arab country outside the Gulf. Ba’athist Iraq had a state. Qadhafi’s Libya did not. There was a small window in 2012 during which it could have been reconstituted. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.
One last thing. Garfinkle, in his post from this February, alludes to the mess in Mali and Nigeria as an unintended, but implicitly inevitable, consequence of the US invention. But did Garfinkle warn about this back in 2011? Did anyone? If so, I’d like the reference.
UPDATE: See the essay in Vox (April 5, 2016) by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, “Everyone says the Libya intervention was a failure; they’re wrong.”
2nd UPDATE: Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, who directs the Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’École Militaire in Paris and has been an adviser to the French foreign ministry, has a must-read article in the Summer 2016 issue of The Washington Quarterly, “Ten Myths About the 2011 Intervention in Libya.”