How Obama Got Pulled into Regime Change in Libya

As Middle East adviser to President Obama, I saw first-hand why it’s much easier to get rid of a bad regime than to put a good one in place

How Obama Got Pulled into Regime Change in Libya
French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes US secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Elysee palace (2011)/ Lionel Bonaventure/ AFP via Getty Images/ Newlines

This article has been adapted from Philip H. Gordon’s new book, Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.

You could never accuse President Nicolas Sarkozy of France of lacking a flair for the dramatic, but informing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that French fighter jets were already in the air and about to launch airstrikes in Libya was extraordinary even by his standards. In Paris to attend Sarkozy’s emergency summit on Libya at the Élysée Palace on March 19, 2011, Clinton had received reports earlier that day that the French were planning to launch the early strikes, so she was not entirely caught off guard. And although exasperated by Sarkozy’s showmanship, she had no intention of taking responsibility for blocking an action that might prevent a massacre of Libyan civilians. So Clinton did not demand that Sarkozy recall the planes, and soon thereafter four Rafale jets struck several Libyan armored vehicles that were advancing on the rebel stronghold in Benghazi.

In the hours and days that followed, the United States itself would launch hundreds of air strikes and more than a hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles from submarines and destroyers positioned off the Libyan coast, pummeling the country’s dilapidated air defenses, giving NATO complete control of the Libyan skies, and leaving Moammar Gadhafi’s forces vulnerable to an opposition counteroffensive. Seven months later, after some 30,000 NATO sorties and 10,000 air strikes, the Libyan armed forces were finally defeated by the Western-supported rebels, and Gadhafi was pulled from a pipe near his hometown of Sirte, beaten, and killed. Upon hearing the news, Libyans danced and celebrated, much as Iraqis had after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

We in the Obama administration thought we had perhaps found a way to help get rid of a horrible dictator without getting bogged down in a costly occupation, such as in Iraq. Just as in Iraq, however, the celebrations — and the expectations that Libya was on a path to democracy and stability — would turn out to be tragically premature.  

The path to regime change in Libya — not exactly a project on Barack Obama’s original to-do list as president — had begun seven months earlier, on Feb. 15, 2011, with Gadhafi’s brutal reaction to the protests that began largely in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. Determined to avoid a similar fate as his counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, both of whom had just been chased from power, Gadhafi took quick pre-emptive action to try to deter the protests, but his arrests of prominent human rights activists only brought more Benghazians into the streets.

Far from saving his skin, Gadhafi’s threats to chase the rebels “house to house” proved to be his undoing. The United States and its partners did not feel they had the luxury of waiting to find out if Gadhafi’s threats were real or not, and they moved quickly to embrace the goal of his departure. With dictators fleeing elsewhere in the region, Washington assumed that Gadhafi would also not last long, and so without much internal debate, on February 25, 2011, Obama called on the Libyan dictator to step down. 

Calling for Gadhafi to go was one thing, but figuring out how to achieve that result was another. Already, as so often in the past, there was growing clamor for military action from leading members of Congress – including Sens. John Kerry and John McCain – and prominent pundits, from Nicholas Kristof to Robert Kagan.

Familiar with Obama’s anti-interventionist instincts and as a participant in inter-agency deliberations about what to do, I initially detected little appetite among top administration officials for military action in Libya. But I also recall going down to the State Department gym for a late-evening workout that second week of March, seeing a parade of politicians and commentators on CNN calling for U.S. military action and realizing that the pressure to act militarily was only going to grow.

Even Donald Trump, before anyone had any idea his views might one day matter to anyone, joined the bandwagon. Trump would later call the Libya intervention a “disaster” and deny ever having called for it; in fact, he argued passionately in favor of it and promised it would be “very easy and very quick” at the time. 

The administration itself was divided, with younger, more idealistic advisers arguing for assertive U.S. action, while some more senior officials remained cautious. Advocates of action, such as close Obama advisers Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice, believed the U.S. had to act to protect Libyans from a violent dictator, prevent likely atrocities, and deter other dictators from repressing their own people with violence. 

On the other side of the argument were senior cabinet officials like Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who seemed to be thinking more about the costly precedents of Iraq and Afghanistan than about Bosnia or Rwanda. Biden argued that military action would create a political vacuum that would be difficult to fill, worried not just about the “day after” but the “decade after.” Gates was even more skeptical of military action, asserting in a speech on Feb. 25 that any future defense secretary proposing “to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa” needed to “have his head examined.” Somewhere in the middle of the two camps was Clinton, who was initially more skeptical of intervention than many later press portrayals of her as an instinctive hawk. 

A critical factor in Clinton’s thinking was the degree to which a potential intervention in Libya would have international and regional support. I saw the importance Clinton placed on international perspectives myself when I accompanied her to a Group of Eight (G-8) foreign ministers meeting in Paris on March 14, 2011. Just prior to the G-8, she met with the United Arab Emirates foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, who pledged Emirati support for a no-fly zone and potential military campaign. Only two days before, the Arab League, which had already suspended Libya’s membership, had called on the U.N. Security Council to “impose immediately a no-fly zone” over Libya and to recognize the Transitional National Council (TNC) as the country’s new government. 

The Europeans also played a pivotal role, in particular at the G-8 foreign ministers meeting hosted by the French. With Washington still deliberating, several European foreign ministers made passionate appeals for U.S. leadership and military action. Less than a decade after the beginning of the Iraq War, it was unusual to say the least to watch Europeans — led by the French and the Italians — lecture a U.S. secretary of state about the costs of inaction and the compelling need to use military force in the Middle East. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Libya Transitional National Council National Council Prime Minister Mahmud Jibril (2011)/ Kevin Lamarque/ AFP via Getty Images/ New Lines.

Another important factor in leading Clinton and others to support action was the belief that Libyan opposition leaders were genuinely representative or committed to democracy, rule of law, human rights, and good relations with the United States. Back at her Paris hotel at 10:30 p.m. after the G-8 meeting, Clinton met with the TNC leader, Mahmoud Jibril, an English-speaking political scientist who had received his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh. Jibril was accompanied by the French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, who had played a prominent role in introducing Libyan opposition leaders to the French government while pressing Paris to intervene in Libya. Clinton found Jibril, who said all the right things about how a future Libya would be governed, “impressive and reasonable” and was “won over,” an important factor in her ultimate decision to support military intervention.

The debate on the use of force would come to a head at a meeting of the National Security Council on the afternoon of March 15, with Clinton participating by secure phone from Cairo. With Gadhafi’s forces still encircling Benghazi and his threats continuing, Obama’s top national security officials debated whether to support the French and British proposals to impose a no-fly zone on Libya. After listening to both sides, Obama ultimately determined the United States could not just stand by and permit a humanitarian disaster in Benghazi.

He approved a military plan according to which the United States would provide certain unique capabilities — such as cruise missiles to destroy Libyan air defenses, advanced intelligence and reconnaissance, and in-air refueling — while relying on others to carry out the bulk of military operations. And he made clear that he expected the U.S. role to be limited to an initial phase, after which others would be expected to bear the bulk of the military burden. Obama also authorized Rice to try to win support at the U.N. Security Council for the wider mission so that if the United States did intervene, it would be at least doing so with a legal mandate and multilateral support.

To almost everyone’s surprise, two days later that effort resulted in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized not only a no-fly zone over Libya but also enforcement of the previously agreed arms embargo, the freezing of Libyan regime assets, and, most consequentially, “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and civilian populated areas. Two days later, Clinton found herself back in Paris, with Sarkozy telling her that the French planes were already in the air.  

In many ways, the NATO operation went exactly as planned, with U.S. and coalition forces easily destroying Libyan air defenses, quickly setting up a no-fly zone, and preventing Gadhafi’s forces from retaking all of Libyan territory. It quickly became clear, however, that this was not going to be a quick or easy military mission — certainly not one in which the U.S. military role would last only “days, not weeks,” as Obama had suggested. 

Gadhafi’s refusal to depart voluntarily also exposed a tension — if not to say an outright contradiction — in the U.S. mission in Libya. Ostensibly, it was not regime change but, as authorized by UNSCR 1973, simply “protecting civilians.” In fact, however, the assumption within the administration that Libyan civilians could never be safe so long as Gadhafi was in power meant regime change was the actual mission after all. This led to a convenient syllogism: The mission is protecting civilians; Gadhafi threatens civilians; ergo, the mission is getting rid of Gadhafi.

Because Gadhafi refused to cede power and his forces — understandably afraid of their fates in a post-Gadhafi Libya — fought hard, the war would take much longer than initially envisaged, but ultimately the Western-backed rebels would prevail. Tens of thousands of Libyans were killed or wounded in eight months of fighting, and it was not until Oct. 20 that forces representing the TNC captured Gadhafi in the coastal city of Sirte and killed him. 

With Gadhafi’s fall, the familiar temptation to declare victory kicked in among both pundits and officials. But while U.S. and NATO leaders had plenty to be proud of, the declaration of victory in Libya — as in so many other cases of regime change that came before it — would prove to be premature.

Indeed, far from putting the country on the path to stability and democracy, the war would leave it even more unstable and produce a wide range of unintended and undesirable consequences. Revenge killings, reprisals, and assassinations began almost immediately after Gadhafi’s departure, and human rights conditions deteriorated rapidly. The repercussions of the conflict and the regime’s collapse also included massive refugee flows that undermined stability in neighboring Chad, Algeria, and Mali, and regional arms flows, both from Gadhafi’s now-unsecured arsenals and from the new supplies that had been provided to anti-regime insurgents.

As was often the case during and after previous Middle Eastern interventions, outside powers with competing agendas — including Egypt, Turkey, Russia and the United Arab Emirates — complicated efforts to mediate among factions on the ground. Critics would later argue that the United States did not do enough to prevent regional powers from arming their preferred proxies, but with no troops on the ground and little visibility into what was happening in Libya — for security reasons, the U.S. embassy was evacuated to Malta in July 2014 — that proved easier said than done. 

For many, including some top administration officials themselves, the lesson of failure in Libya was not that intervention was a mistake but that those who intervened failed to adequately follow up. Obama himself would end up articulating a version of this view, in spring 2016 telling Chris Wallace of Fox News that the “worst mistake” of his presidency was “probably failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, in intervening in Libya.”

In fact, there was no appetite for deploying security forces to Libya in the administration, Congress, or U.S. or European public opinion, and the Libyans themselves were strongly opposed to any outside presence in their country. And even if it had somehow been politically possible and practically feasible to send in large numbers of U.S. and European stabilization forces, it is not clear that such a presence would have been effective or sustainable in the long run.

As the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq had already demonstrated, such a deployment would require significant and enduring military commitments and would only raise questions like how militias would be disarmed, how outside forces would respond if attacked by nationalist or extremist insurgents, and for how long Western publics and parliaments — all of whom had been promised before the intervention that ground troops had been ruled out — would support the deployments as costs and inevitable casualties escalated. 

Those obstacles could not just be wished away. In an August 2014 interview with the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Obama concluded that we had underestimated “the need to come in full force — if you were going to do this, then it’s the day after Qaddafi’s [sic] gone, and everybody’s feeling good, and everybody’s holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions. […] So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question: Should we intervene militarily? Do we have an answer for the day after?” In Libya, we didn’t have an answer for the day after.

The iron rule of regime change in the Middle East seems to be that it will always prove more costly, less successful, and more replete with unintended consequences than proponents of such action ever realize or admit.

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