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The Libyan Victory

by Luke Herman

With the Libya war seemingly (seemingly being the operative word) heading towards its endgame, I’m happy to utter three words I didn’t think I would: I was wrong. Ok, maybe it’s a little too quick to fully commit to “wrong” because all sorts of nasty things still might happen, but many of the worst things that I predicted in posts at my other, never updated, website here and here didn’t occur.

To begin with, it seems like the Obama administration pulled off a nice little military success – few resources expended, no soldiers lost, majority of the burden fell on local fighters (as it should), few civilian casualties from our bombs, and a government that appears to be genuinely thankful of Western intervention. In addition, said government (or whatever you want to call the incoming National Transition Council) is certainly saying all the right things.

What were my problems with the operation when it began? First and foremost, we were picking sides in a civil war where we didn’t know all of the facts on the ground. Gaddafi is a horrible human being, but there were indications that the rebels weren’t exactly the type of individuals we wanted to get in bed with. For example, I was concerned by indications that a large number of jihadists in Iraq (on a per capita basis) had come from East Libya. It seemed that the situation could end up like Afghanistan after supporting the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union.

Second, it seemed inappropriate to be intervening in another Muslim country, potentially spending billions, while preaching the need for austerity at home. I understand the desire to protect others, but there are pressing issues at home not being addressed because of the belief that the government should cut back on spending. Once we began our intervention, it seemed likely to me that (like our other interventions) there would eventually be an escalation and costs would skyrocket.

Finally, the Obama administration came up with a completely bullshit and implausible explanation for why they decided to go around Congress in authorizing the war. They said it was a “limited kinetic action”, which was not subject to the War Powers act and thus Congress could be ignored. Not that Congress ever exactly covers itself in glory, but this semantic game on the part of the White House showed a profound uneasiness about what they were getting themselves into – and if you have that uneasiness you probably shouldn’t be doing something in the first place.

One thing I did mention at the time is that a lot of very smart people were arguing in favor of the operation. This certainly gave me pause when I came out against the operation, and I think it’s only right that they get the proper credit now. Guys likeJuan Cole (professor of Middle Eastern studies at Michigan) and Nick Kristof (columnist for the New York Times), not exactly raging warmongers, said from the very beginning that the operation was the right thing to do. Another voice that eventually came out in support was Marc Lynch, a professor who focuses on Middle Eastern studies at George Washington University. He wrote an amazing post in mid-June that turned out to be remarkably prescient. After knocking the Obama administration for failing to obtain Congressional authorization, he stated:

The prevailing view seems to be that Libya has become a quagmire, a grinding stalemate with no end in sight. This is wrong. While nothing is resolved yet, and Qaddafi may still be able to hang on, all the trends are in the favor of the rebels. There has been a growing cascade of states recognizing the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya, as Qaddafi's support dries up even in Africa. There are more and more defections from the Qaddafi regime to the NTC, and -- crucially -- virtually no examples of anyone moving in the opposite direction. The rebels are holding territory, and the battle has moved to Tripoli itself. Qaddafi appears to be running out of money. Finally, the NTC itself (several of whom I've had the opportunity to meet) appears to be an impressive group, with serious technocrats attending to key shadow ministries and a real effort to include and represent all parts of Libya.”

So why were these guys basically proven right and I was, more or less, wrong? First off, the administration really did keep it limited, which was a major concern. It allowed its allies in NATO and the Libyan rebels themselves to shoulder much of the burden. The total cost of the intervention is expected to be a little over $1 billion – not nothing, but a fairly small sum to pay to get rid of Gaddafi. In addition, they were patient. They didn’t panic when the rebels were unable to achieve a quick victory, understanding that it would be a hard slog for a while. On Twitter, six months may seem like an eternity, but in the real world, the fact that it only took the rebels around six months to organize, turn themselves into a legitimate fighting force and, eventually, march on Tripoli is a pretty astounding feat.

Serious concerns remain of course. Gaddafi is still on the loose and clearly has some remaining followers within Libya willing to fight in his name. There is the risk that, similar to Iraq, forces loyal to Gaddafi have decided to stop fighting in a conventional manner and opted to fight an insurgent campaign against the incoming government.

There is also the risk of internal splits within the rebel ranks. From the time of the uprising to now, there has been a single, unifying goal: get rid of Gaddafi. Now we will see whether or not the groups can remain unified after that goal has been achieved. Just last month the rebel commander, Abdel Fatah Younis, was murdered by soldiers who mistrusted him because of his connections to Gaddafi prior to the uprising. Members of the Obeidi tribe that Younis belonged to swear that they will not allow this to go unpunished – a sign that internal dissension may cripple the government before it gets off the ground.

Early indications are that the NTC is actually quite competent and better prepared for the post-war period than had been thought. However, the road ahead is fraught with peril, and it will be essential for the international community to help the new Libyan government during this period. For forty years, Gaddafi essentially ran the country without regard for the institutions that are essential for competent and representative governance. He played tribes off against one another, leaving a legacy of mistrust and bad blood, which means there will be a wariness of ceding any power to the new central government. Finally, the government will have to deal with the question of post-Gaddafi justice – who gets prosecuted, who gets absolved of wrongdoing.

Cliches can sometimes be truisms: the difficult part is still to come.



Every week I’ll post links from the past week or so that I found informative, interesting or (occasionally) hilarious.


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Luke Herman is currently a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Study. He is getting an MA in International Politics with a regional focus on China and Korea. You can reach Luke at luke.herman[at]