Relieving Libya’s Agony
The credibility of all external actors in the Libyan conflict is now at stake. The main domestic players will lower their maximalist pretensions only when their foreign supporters do the same, ending hypocrisy once and for all and making a sincere effort to find room for consensus.
MADRID – Over the last decade, Libya has become a failed state, descending from its own Arab Spring into the coldest of winters. The fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s authoritarian regime in 2011 did not lead to the social improvements that many had hoped for, but rather to misgovernment and misery. Now, the civil war that has been ravaging the country for years is in danger of becoming chronic. And the world, for the most part, has been looking away.
But the international community cannot evade responsibility in the face of this tragic course of events. Libya is a failed state today largely because certain external actors adopted failed policies toward it. The consequences of these missteps have been so toxic that they have affected other conflicts around the world.
To understand the origin and magnitude of the Libyan debacle, we must go back to the beginning of 2011. It was then, with the fighting between Qaddafi’s forces and the rebels at its height, that the United Nations Security Council adopted its historic Resolution 1973 – the first time it had authorized a humanitarian intervention by “all necessary measures” against the wishes of a functioning state. The resolution was adopted because the two permanent members with the greatest reservations – China and Russia – decided to abstain.
Up to that point, the international reaction to the crisis in Libya had been consensual and timely. But the subsequent NATO-led armed intervention strained the resolution well beyond reasonable limits. Instead of concentrating on protecting the civilian population, the campaign’s main proponents became fixated on removing Qaddafi by force. Moreover, as is often the case, no viable reconstruction plans were in place. So, once the rebels’ common enemy was eliminated, Libya soon fell victim to sectarianism. Then-US President Barack Obama later called this lack of foresight the worst mistake of his presidency.
The mistake lay not only in ignoring the predictable problems that would arise once Qaddafi had been ousted, but also in the methods and objectives of the military operation itself. The effects of these myopic policies transcended Libya’s borders. In particular, the misuse of Resolution 1973 gave both China and Russia a pretext to justify their vetoes of many humanitarian resolutions on Syria. The fragile consensus in the Security Council was shattered, to the distress of countless threatened and unprotected civilians.
Nor did the strategic blunders end there. Recall that at the beginning of the century, in the hope of improving his country’s relations with the West, Qaddafi gave up his embryonic nuclear-arms program. At that time, he could hardly have imagined the fatal destiny that awaited him a few years later. So, when John Bolton – then-US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser – suggested in 2018 that the Libyan denuclearization model could be applied to North Korea, the Pyongyang regime’s angry reaction surprised no one. Qaddafi’s fate provided a lesson that the North Koreans won’t easily forget, and which will compromise international efforts to halt nuclear proliferation.
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The United States seems to be learning, albeit stumblingly, its own lessons from what happened in Libya. Recognizing the enormous risks involved in interventionist excesses, first Obama and now Trump have shown themselves to be in favor of limiting America’s security involvement in the Middle East and North Africa, though there have been some contradictions.
The European Union, on the other hand, can never afford to exclude this region from its strategic priorities. For starters, Europe bears an historic responsibility for these countries and their peoples. Moreover, everything that occurs in our neighborhood affects us directly, as the 2015 refugee crisis demonstrated. Looking the other way is thus not an option.
From our shore of the Mediterranean, we Europeans can see Libya’s turmoil and decay. The UN-recognized government in Tripoli is besieged by the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by the Tobruk-based parliament. Complicating matters further, Haftar is perceived as the main bulwark against the rise of radical Islamism in the country, including the militias affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He thus has garnered the support of countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as some others that also see in his military expertise a possible way out of the Libyan mire.
In this clash of interests and claims to legitimacy, in which Libya’s abundant oil plays a central role, the EU has suffered from an evident lack of unity and strategic insight. The bloc’s paralyzing contradictions have allowed other countries to fill the gaps: Russia and Turkey have now established themselves as the two most influential foreign powers in the conflict.
Despite this, last month’s negotiations in Moscow – sponsored by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – were derailed following Haftar’s refusal to sign a ceasefire agreement. Immediately after this, German Chancellor Angela Merkel exercised the leadership expected of EU countries by hosting new talks in Berlin, in coordination with the UN special representative for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. This conference resulted in some notable progress, such as a commitment by the states present to refrain from interfering in the conflict and to respect the arms embargo approved by the Security Council in 2011. It also succeeded in drawing international attention to Libya again, which is no small achievement.
The credibility of all external actors in the Libyan conflict is now at stake. If the commitments made in Berlin come to nothing – and there are already signs that this may happen – then Libya’s people will once again pay the price. The main domestic players will lower their maximalist pretensions only when their foreign supporters do the same, ending hypocrisy once and for all and making a sincere effort to find room for consensus.
Since 2011, the international community has failed disastrously in Libya. A course correction is long overdue, in order to give the Libyan people the direction and hope they deserve.