Nato’s Libya campaign a success?

The aims of the Nato operation may have been achieved in Libya, but can it be judged a success?


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An unhinged and violent dictator is toppled through Western military intervention, a transitional authority is appointed, leaders proclaim the country ‘free’, and businessmen are exhorted to flock to the country to make a quick buck.

Iraq? No, not this time, and if only the course of regime change in Iraq went so smoothly then all involved might not have wasted so much precious money. Libya – another Muslim country with quite a bit of oil – has been the target of western intervention this time around, just eight years after Bush’s bungled invasion of Iraq. No one with half a brain would be quick to declare the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq an unqualified success. Perhaps, then, the lessons of Iraq have been learned and the mistakes not repeated in Libya.

Unlike Iraq, there was no ground invasion and no foreign occupation – this time the west was on the side of peace, freedom and democracy – what could there possibly be to criticise? NATO was quick to intervene in what was seen to be potentially massive bloodshed in Gaddafi’s suppression of an uprising in March this year. International leaders were anxious to avoid the hesitancy and inaction that failed to stop massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and Obama’s willingness to press ahead with intervention swayed the cause. Seven months after the UN-backed NATO intervention began, and the Gaddafi regime is gone, a new transitional Prime Minister is in power and the NATO campaign has called an end to what it describes as its most successful campaign to date.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen is jubilant about the Libya campaign, and it’s not too hard to see why.

After concern during the summer that the situation in Libya was turning into an intractable stalemate, the rebels began to turn the tide, routing pro-Gaddafi forces and then claiming the ultimate prize of Gaddafi’s head. All of which was backed by NATO arms and firepower. When compared with the highly ambiguous outcome in Kosovo where Serbs accelerated their programme of ethnic cleansing following NATO airstrikes on Serb targets in 1999, the Libya campaign looks, well, more clear-cut, doesn’t it? Evil dictator attempts to repress democratic revolution in context of wider regional uprisings, NATO muscles in and arms the revolutionaries who romp home to victory.

The case for intervention (a euphemism for military force) was framed in ethical not strategic terms, a trend that has become increasingly apparent since the end of the Cold War. Foreign policy choices are framed by a concern with defending or promoting liberal values: democracy, human rights and the rule of law, in rhetoric if not in practice. The ostensible decision in the Libya debate revolved around doing the right thing for the Libyan people. Thus Fogh Rasmussen justifies the success of NATO’s intervention in terms of protecting civilians, declaring the campaign to have “saved countless lives”.

There is an uncomfortable contradiction, however, in the declaration that a NATO military campaign supported by the US, UK and France is considered a humanitarian victory, and a victory for democracy. All the talk of freedom and liberation tends to obfuscate the hard facts of military intervention. NATO launched 9,658 strike sorties during the campaign, which was commenced on 19th March and drawn to a close on the 31st October. There is no official accurate estimate for civilian lives lost in the course of this bombing campaign. Sources vary wildly, with the Gaddafi regime claiming just over 1,000 civilian deaths in June, while an independent think tank said in September that, though a figure was hard to establish, 50-100 civilians likely died in Nato strikes during the campaign. However, without external verification it is difficult to discern. What is certain is that not a single NATO soldier was killed or wounded over the course of the campaign.

Not a bad thing, of course, but it serves to highlight the imbalance of risk in carrying out such a campaign. Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron can afford to support a bombing campaign safe in the knowledge that they will not risk their soldier’s lives. They will not have to navigate complex moral debates about the sacrifice of their citizen’s lives in the cause of… Well in the cause of what exactly? Bringing liberal democracy to Libya? Protecting Libyan citizens against human rights abuses? Noble causes, surely, but difficult to persuade publics that they are worth sacrificing precious western lives for. Mindful of Blair’s public relations disaster over Iraq, leaders may now be less inclined to commit ground troops to wars which rest upon shaky normative foundations. No matter of course, thanks to the distance afforded by ‘precision weapons’.

When complex moral questions are ignored, then the Libya campaign can be called a success. No NATO casualties were sustained, and Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown, and all for only $1 billion! What a bargain. Libya’s future may be prosperous and democratic. That the choice faced by Western leaders was ‘to bomb or not to bomb’ is, however, a fallacy. This paints the world as one of stark black and white policy choices, and the role of the statesperson is to side with the forces of good over evil. When the world is viewed in this way, Fogh Rasmussen and Obama may now portray themselves as heroic liberators, on the right side of history, and helping to turn the world into a peaceful democratic place, one bombing campaign at a time.

However, we need to question this interpretation and ask ourselves, how is it that aerial bombing has become the humanitarian and democratic answer to tricky foreign policy questions? As Michael Ignatieff acknowledges:

a new imperium is taking shape, in which American military power, European money and humanitarian motives have combined to produce a form of imperial rule for a post-imperial age.

It’s surely a topsy-turvey world in which we live if NATO is seen as a bastion of human rights and launching missiles onto a country is the humanitarian option to a foreign policy dilemma. There are no easy answers for progressives with regards the Libyan intervention. In hindsight, was the intervention a good thing? Gaddafi’s gone, a new transitional authority is in place, there are no foreign troops occupying the country. But does this mean we should support the use of military force to achieve these ends?

Rarely are there cases where the only options are send in troops or watch the bloodshed unfold. Early diplomacy and standing up for the cause of democracy before the bloodletting begins would be a healthy start. Europe and the US combined have a great deal of political capital, and a greater emphasis on soft power might avoid the resort to NATO airstrikes. Let’s not get sucked into such black and white thinking.


Susannah O’Sullivan is a post-graduate student of International Politics at the University of Manchester. She writes on subjects including Western intervention and post-conflict reconstruction. 

See also: How the Left got Libya wrong