NATO’s Success in Libya

This post first appeared on the CIC’s Roundtable blog at

NATO’s operation in Libya formally ends at midnight today. All told, its aircraft conducted almost 10,000 strike missions over 7 months. When the mission began, many commentators warned that the intervention would result in a quagmire that might draw western forces into another endless, unwinnable war. There was some reason for concern: no one could predict the outcome of this intervention. Wars have a way of following their own dynamics, to the eternal dismay of military planners and politicians. In this case, however, not only was the worst avoided, but the result was a remarkable success.

Mark Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, sums up the success nicely:

“The NATO intervention did save Libya’s protestors from a near-certain bloodbath in Benghazi. It did help Libyans free themselves from what was an extremely nasty, violent, and repressive regime. It did not lead to the widely predicted quagmire, the partition of Libya, the collapse of the TNC, or massive regional conflagration. It was fought under a real, if contestable, international legal mandate which enjoyed widespread Arab support. It did help to build — however imperfectly and selectively — an emerging international norm rejecting impunity for regimes which massacre their people. Libya’s success did inspire Arab democracy protestors across the region. And it did not result in an unpopular, long-term American military occupation which it would have never seemed prudent to withdraw.”

Of course, now Libya’s interim government faces the daunting task of navigating the transition to a post-Qaddafi political system in a country that has no experience with democracy, significant regional and tribal differences, and semi-autonomous armed militias.

The international community’s message to Libya’s leaders today should be simple: “We respect and celebrate your declared intention to create a representative, tolerant government by, of and for the Libyan people – and we will do our best to help you realize this goal.” At the same time, however, such assistance should not amount to a blank check. Canada’s foreign minister John Baird, for one, has indicated that he will hold Libya’s government accountable for their pledges to respect human rights and work towards democratic governance. He was right to do so.

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