6 years after U.S. involvement in Libya, here's what we've learned

By Daniel DePetris

On March 18, 2011, President Barack Obama delivered a statement to the American people that would commence the third war for the United States in the Middle East in a decade.

Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi's army was swiftly barreling toward the eastern city of Benghazi to snuff out an opposition movement. President Obama told the American people that if Qaddafi's army wasn't stopped, a civilian massacre was preordained. Ten days later, U.S. pilots were dispatched to bomb Qaddafi's primitive anti-aircraft defenses and radar sites. And after roughly nine months of the NATO target set continuing to broaden, Qaddafi's regime was overthrown. Upon hearing the news of Qaddafi’s execution from a reporter, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was downright jubilant: “we came, we saw, he died.”

As we know, the decision to overthrow Qaddafis’ regime hasn’t resulted in the democratic era western leaders anticipated. Now, five years after the Libya operation began, self-reflection is in order:

1. Beware of regime-change efforts packaged as humanitarian missions: This mission was originally promoted as a civilian protection operation against a predatory government and transformed almost immediately into a much broader regime change campaign. The U.N. Security Council resolution, which authorized the use of military force in order to protect “civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack,” transformed into the green light that western powers needed to finally depose an irritating dictator. A no-fly zone established to ensure a safe space for civilians mutated into a western-protected area where anti-Qaddafi rebel units established their own government. A Security Council resolution that shied away from a change in government was interpreted by Washington and its partners as exactly that.

Safeguarding civilians in Benghazi was never the sole objective—Qaddafi was always in the crosshairs. Targets that were nowhere near the front-line, like Qaddafi's private residence in Tripoli, were struck in the hope that perhaps the dictator would be in one of those buildings and taken out. Qatar and France began to ship anti-tank weapons to rebel units in order to enhance their effectiveness on the battlefield, despite the fact that the Security Council resolution explicitly placed an arms embargo on all combatants in Libya. The same coalition aircraft that were supposed to be patrolling a no-fly zone were repurposed as the rebel's own personal air force.

By the time the NATO operation ended, the mission departed so much from its original objective it was unrecognizable.

2. Hubris should never trump realism: In early April 2011, when Qaddafi's forces were being pushed back from Libya's east, the erratic dictator offered an olive branch to his opponents and requested ceasefire talks. Qaddafi's forces were in bad shape at the time—about 30 percent of his military capabilities were wiped out in the first several weeks of NATO airstrikes, and it became abundantly clear the Libyan army wasn't strong enough to take back the entire country. In less than a month, the Libyan strongman embraced the very negotiations he previously laughed off.

NATO, however, never took Qaddafi's offer seriously. Previous ceasefires were quickly broken and past promises of de-escalation weren't kept, so Libya’s Transitional National Council concluded more negotiations with the Libyan regime would be a waste of time and would do nothing but give Qaddafi's forces time to recuperate. As far as we know, the west didn't press the issue.

What might have happened if those discussions were accepted? We won't ever know. Instead, military force took precedent over exploratory diplomacy—and the political situation has only deteriorated since then.

3. Beware of unintended consequences: World politics is in many ways similar to physics-- every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Efforts by one country to forcefully intervene may push another country to react to preserve its own national interests. Such was the case in Libya.

Washington, London, and Paris were only able to push through their resolution in Libya because the Russians did not use their veto power in the Security Council. Moscow was assured NATO's objective wasn't to launch an entire bombing campaign across Libya, but rather to provide just enough force against Qaddafi's regime to compel his loyalists to pull back from Benghazi. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev ordered his diplomats to abstain, and the resolution went through.

Russia quickly realized the miscalculation on their part. When NATO aircraft continued to launch airstrikes on government compounds in Tripoli even after the Libyan army was retreating westward, Moscow concluded western powers were being duplicitous and simply wanted Qaddafi gone. Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister at the time, took the younger Medvedev to task for his naïveté. The resolution, in Putin's words, wasn't a civilian protection mission as the west said but "a call for everyone to come and do whatever they want."

Five years later, the Libya intervention remains a sore spot for Putin. He continues to believe the U.S., the U.K., and France publicly embarrassed his country. The Libya experience has come back to bite the U.S. in the rear; if U.S.-Russia relations were on shaky ground during the first several years of the Obama administration, the relationship is now frosty to the point that commentators are talking about a second Cold War. The NATO campaign in Libya certainty didn't help smooth the edges.

Can the United States avoid these same mistakes in the future? There will inevitably come a time when Washington will be pressured yet again to stave off a humanitarian disaster. U.S. policymakers better be prepared to learn the lessons of Libya before again scrambling the F-15's and B-2's: if allowed to progress with limited debate about the strategic consequences, military plans with humanitarian aims can quickly evolve into modern-day conquest.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow with Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on March 29, 2017. Read more HERE