With NATO officially ending its combat mission in the skies over Libya today – Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the endeavor one of the "most successful" operations in NATO's history – a new mission begins for scholars, pundits, and the merely opinionated: What just happened and was it worth it?
It promises to be hotly contested terrain in the coming months and years: between supporters of the "right to protect" doctrine and critics who say the NATO intervention was ill-conceived and could still result in more harm than good; between politicians who seek to frame President Obama as a bold and decisive leader or a feckless gambler; and between those who saw either a principled stand to help Libyans win freedom by NATO or an effort to control what comes next in Libya.
For now, all assessments are hampered by time. It's simply too soon to tell what kind of new Libya will be born. The country's vast oil wealth is clearly a positive, but its geographical divisions and absence of pluralistic political culture (thanks in part to Muammar Qaddafi's 42 years of one-man rule) could lead to major trouble.
Marc Lynch, a political scientist who supported the intervention (and has provided informal advice to the Obama administration in the past), acknowledges Libya's challenges, but argues that complaints of what might go wrong rather miss the point. He starts by pointing out that the most dire predictions made by doubters when the mission started in February – that Libya would end up partitioned between East and West, that the conflict would "become a quagmire," that the no-fly zone was the beginning of some sort of neo-imperial grab for Libya's oil – didn't come to pass.
"More broadly, I disagree with the many varieties of argument condemning the Libyan intervention as hypocritical or as actually undermining the norms against impunity. It's obviously true that the US, UN and international community have not applied the same response to a variety of other countries that they did to Libya. But the inability to prevent all atrocities is not a reason to avoid preventing one when the opportunity presents itself. Without the Libyan precedent the possibility of an intervention in Syria would not have even been considered. The development of a norm against impunity for violence against civilians won't be accomplished overnight or automatically be applied universally. But I believe that the Libyan intervention did prevent an imminent atrocity and could be one important step in building that norm."
Others were deeply disturbed by how Qaddafi met his end. After his convoy was hit by NATO fire as he tried to flee his hometown of Sirte, a battered Qaddafi was seized by rebels. He was clearly murdered by revolutionary militiamen, probably from Misurata, a city he indiscriminately pounded with artillery for months at the beginning of the conflict. Seamus Milne, an editor at the Guardian, says the way Qaddafi died and atrocities carried out by rebels in Sirte is evidence the whole venture was a waste of time.
"All the while, Nato leaders and cheerleading media have turned a blind eye to such horrors as they boast of a triumph of freedom and murmur about the need for restraint. But it is now absolutely clear that, if the purpose of western intervention in Libya's civil war was to "protect civilians" and save lives, it has been a catastrophic failure. David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy won the authorisation to use "all necessary means" from the UN security council in March on the basis that Gaddafi's forces were about to commit a Srebrenica-style massacre in Benghazi. Naturally we can never know what would have happened without Nato's intervention. But there is in fact no evidence – including from other rebel-held towns Gaddafi re-captured – to suggest he had either the capability or even the intention to carry out such an atrocity against an armed city of 700,000."
What would have happened in Benghazi if NATO hadn't intervened is unknowable – that is undoubtedly true. But Mr. Milne shouldn't doubt that Qaddafi had the capacity to sack the town. I was in Benghazi on the morning NATO took decisive action. His tanks and trained infantry were moving into the city, the lightly armed rebel defenders were in a panic, and the civilian population was fleeing to the west. I'm firmly convinced that Benghazi, where the revolution began, would have fallen if French jets hadn't torn apart Qaddafi's armor advancing on town.
Would there have been a massacre? Murdering his enemies and spreading terror among fence-sitters were standard tactics for Qaddafi, and he'd promised to hunt the rebels – a rabble of drug-addled rats and cockroaches, in his words – house to house, and have them all put to death. Milne appears to be in the camp that the murder of Qaddafi is evidence that Libya will now go off the rails. I just don't see it. Yes, he was killed by furious and undisciplined militiamen. That they would do so was highly predictable. A good start? No. But evidence that the future is one of chaos and further violence? No. It could go that way but now Libya – without an occupying army – will have to find a way to make itself a better place.
In some quarters of the American right, there is near-hysteria that Libya's National Transitional Council has said the Islamic sharia should be the main source of legislation in the new Libya. Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann lashed out at US support for Qaddafi's ouster, implying that a threatening Islamic state is likely to emerge. "We don’t know who the next leader will be,” she told ABC, “It could be a radical element. We knew who the devil was that was running [the country]. We don’t know that next one.” Libya’s oil, she told ABC, could finance a “global caliphate and extremist elements.”
If I may reassure Ms. Bachmann, the emergence of a "global caliphate" as a consequence of the dictator being removed in Libya, a country of 6 million people, is highly unlikely. Islam will clearly play a bigger role in the country's politics than it did under Qaddafi. Libya's people are generally devout, and pretty conservative in their approach to their faith. But they have a debt of gratitude to the US and European powers who enabled their revolution, and there is no appetite at all for imperial adventures that they are, to say the least, ill-equipped to pursue.
“Nearly all work was done by foreigners.” he said. “Jobs were classified by nationality, with black Africans at the bottom of the ladder. They lived in shipping containers along the side of the road. Libyans spent their days idling in tea shops with nothing to do, all of them on the dole. Qaddafi decided one day that men idling in tea shops gave the impression that Libyans were lazy, so he decreed they be shut. I was buying a tea one day when the order was enforced—without any notice, of course. Trucks pulled up with soldiers who started beating everybody and smashing up the tables and crockery.”
Sullivan came away convinced that Qaddafi was a madman who had turned Libya into an insane asylum. “One day, driving into Tripoli, I saw dead camels everywhere,” he recalled. “Qaddafi had decided that having camels within the city limits made Tripoli look like a backward place. Since he was trying to become the head of the Organization of African Unity, that wasn’t a good thing, so he had all camels shot that were on the road into the city."