The scene was one of jubilation, as British prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Libya’s capital on September 15 to cheering throngs waving British and French flags. The two men basked in the glow of victory, as well they should. Both had advocated armed intervention after the Libyan people rose up in February against dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and they had done so well before other international leaders—including President Barack Obama.
Even though Qaddafi loyalists still control several towns and their toppled leader is on the run, talk has turned to the implications of NATO’s intervention in Libya for the broader Arab Spring and for future responses to situations in which rebellious populations are threatened by thuggish and murderous rulers.
In Tripoli, Cameron spoke of Libya’s relevance. “This does go beyond Libya. This is a moment when the Arab Spring could become an Arab Summer and we see democracy advance in other countries, too. I believe you have the opportunity to give an example to others about what taking back your country can mean.” Sarkozy made a direct connection to Syrians facing down Bashar al-Assad’s snipers. “The best thing I can do,” he said, “is dedicate our visit to Tripoli to those who hope that Syria can one day also be a free country.” Similarly, the Obama administration—which took considerable flak for an anonymous official’s characterization to Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker of its policy in Libya as “leading from behind”—began to tout the applicability of Libya to future interventions.
Deputy National Security Adviser for Communications Ben Rhodes told Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin that a Libya-style approach would form the basis for future Obama administration interventions. “It’s far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers,” said Rhodes. “Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the United States wasn’t bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions.”
But how applicable is this model of indigenous regime change supported by an international coalition with the United States in a supporting role to future efforts to prevent atrocities?
The reality, gleaned from meetings we recently held in London and Paris, the capitals that took the lead, is quite different. In fact, some wonder whether the example of Libya will hinder, not assist, Western responses to similar contingencies.
First, there is the matter of military capabilities. While the French and British, along with the Danes and Norwegians in particular, carried out the bulk of the airstrikes, and European navies provided the vast majority of vessels involved in the blockade, it was American air and sea forces that opened the campaign with critical attacks on Libyan air defenses, allowing other forces to operate in and over Libya with the impunity they enjoyed. And, even after this initial stage, American niche capabilities, such as air-to-air refueling, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles—along with an ability to keep Europeans supplied with precision munitions—were key to the success of the operation, as French and British officials readily admit.
So while it’s certainly true that the United States was not at the forefront of the day-to-day effort, it would be misleading to suggest that the American role was secondary. And given the general reluctance of the president to involve the United States in the Libyan campaign at all and his pledge of no American “boots on the ground,” European strategists are fully aware that the campaign may be a one-off rather than a game plan for the future.
Moreover, although the relative ease with which opposition forces eventually pushed to the capital and the scenes of jubilation in Tripoli are fresh in people’s minds, the reality is that the operation created significant strains within NATO.
Germany abstained from the vote on Security Council Resolution 1973, its foreign minister going so far as to imply at one point that Germany would refrain from choosing sides, even after NATO intervened. Of those NATO members that participated, many did not have the military capabilities to make a significant contribution, and NATO’s “in-house” capabilities for running the war were soon found to be inadequate. Given who fought and who didn’t, talk of a north/south divide within the alliance is rampant in Europe and has reinforced French notions that significant reform of NATO is necessary. In short, whether the alliance would soon be up to another campaign of this sort is anybody’s guess.
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.