The Magazine

NATO in Libya

A one-of-a-kind intervention.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By GARY SCHMITT and JAMIE M. FLY
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Oddly, given the key roles of London and Paris in the intervention, both countries seem wary of a military role in postwar Libya. The new Libyan government’s opposition to an international force is just fine with British and French officials. Although some Europeans talk of learning the “lessons of Iraq” and trying to forestall an insurgency, few, even with reports of infighting among the opposition, seem to have taken to heart Colin Powell’s famous Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.”

So how likely is the Libyan intervention to be replicated in response to atrocities elsewhere, like Assad’s continued crackdown in Syria? 

Perhaps most important, many French and British officials seem to think that Libya was an anomaly. On Europe’s doorstep, militarily weak, with a population under seven million, with neighbors who were not likely to support Qaddafi and other regional actors who were willing to contribute personnel and resources to assist the opposition, Libya was, to their mind, the easy case.

Add to this the allies’ insistence on Arab League and Security Council approval before intervening, and the Libyan case is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere in the near future. Russia has blocked any effort in New York to pass a resolution on Syria, in part because of its chagrin about how the protection of Libyan civilians authorized in Security Council Resolution 1973 morphed into regime change. Other critics of the Libya intervention such as China, Brazil, South Africa, and India have also been emboldened by the allies’ simultaneous elevation of the Security Council’s role and their hypocrisy in the implementation of the mandate to protect civilians.

The Obama administration’s message on Syria is also telling. Several weeks before Tripoli fell to the rebels, the White House released a “Presidential Directive on Mass Atrocities.” The White House touted the fact that the United States and its allies had mobilized “with unprecedented speed” in Libya to protect civilians. Yet, even as that document was being released, the people of Syria were being gunned down in the streets. And neither the administration nor our allies was showing any sign that the Libyan intervention was a model for responding to Syria.

That said, with reports that the Syrian opposition is turning to an armed response, that soldiers are defecting from the army, and more and more Syrians are calling for “international intervention,” it is far from clear that the liberators of Tripoli will escape the precedent they have set. The irony, of course, is that toppling the Assad regime—which governs a country of 22 million in the heart of the Middle East—would be even more significant strategically than removing Qaddafi from power. 

But it is unimaginable that America’s allies would be ready or willing to undertake such a campaign without Washington in the lead. In that respect, again, Libya is no model. Either the president is leading—or he is just behind. 

Gary Schmitt is director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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