One year after the U.S., Britain, and France began their war in Libya, the harmful consequences of Western intervention are readily apparent. The internal disorder and regional instability that the West’s assault created were foreseen by many critics. And yet, Western governments made no meaningful efforts to prepare for them.
No one planned to stabilize Libyaonce Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown, and the National Transitional Council (NTC) rejected the idea of an outside stabilization force, which has left Libya at serious risk of fragmentation and renewed conflict. Intervention “on the cheap” may be more politically palatable in the West because of the low cost to Western nations, but it can still be quite destructive for the countries affected by it.
Libya is now effectively ruled by the militias that ousted Gadhafi, and some militias run parts of the country as their own fiefdoms independent of any national authority. The most powerful militias in the western cities of Zintan and Misrata have refused the government’s calls to disarm. These militias believe that remaining armed allows them to retain political influence in the new order that they fought to create.
Amnesty International has documented numerous cases of abuse and torture of detainees by local militias, and there have been many reports of reprisals against civilians living in perceived pro-Gadhafi areas. Militia rule is made possible by the weakness of the NTC, which never had real control over armed rebel forces during the war, and still does not. Plus, the council’s opacity and corruption have been rapidly de-legitimizing it in the eyes of Libyans.
While elections are scheduled for June, the NTC’s electoral law creates a significant obstacle to disarming militias by barring members of the Libyan military from participating in the political process. This is intended to keep the military out of politics, but its effect will be to discourage militias from giving up their weapons and integrating themselves into the military.
As Geoff Porter asked in The New York Times: “Why would militias, whose members can vote and thus express themselves as a powerful bloc, disband so their members can join the military, which is explicitly excluded from elections?” The continued role of militias in Libyan political life represents a serious threat to Libya’s political transition. There is also significant risk of renewed fighting in Libya: A survey of Libyan political attitudes found that 16 percent said they would resort to violence for political ends.
But the Libyan war’s worst impact may have occurred outside of Libya. The neighboring country of Mali, which also happens to support U.S. counter-terrorist efforts in western Africa, has been roiled by a new Tuareg insurgency fueled by the influx of men and weapons after Gadhafi’s defeat, providing the Tuareg rebels with much more sophisticated weaponry than they had before.
This new upheaval benefits al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), and the Tuareg uprising threatens the territorial integrity of Mali. The rebellion has also displaced nearly 200,000 civilians in a region that is already at risk of famine, and refugees from Mali are beginning to strain local resources in Niger, where most of them have fled. “Success” in Libya is creating a political and humanitarian disaster in Mali and Niger.
Paradoxically, the Libyan war and its aftermath have had the unintended consequence of undermining the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) that was originally used to justify the intervention. Many advocates of intervention believed Western involvement would strengthen the norm that sovereignty may be limited to protect a civilian population from large-scale loss of life. Instead, the Libyan intervention helped discredit that idea.
A key requirement of the “responsibility to protect” is that intervening governments assume the “responsibility to rebuild” in the wake of military action, but this was a responsibility that the intervening governments never wanted and haven’t accepted. All of this has proven to skeptical governments, including emerging democratic powers such as Brazil and India, that the doctrine can and will be abused to legitimize military intervention while ignoring its other requirements. The Libyan experience has soured many major governments around the world on R2P, and without their support in the future, it will become little more than a façade for the preferred policies of Western governments.
Daniel Larison has a Ph.D. in history and is a contributing editor at The American Conservative. He also writes on the blog Eunomia.