Should the West have intervened in Libya to overthrow the “Kafkaesque” regime of strongman Moammar Gaddafi?
Surveying the chaos in the north African country five years on, with rival authorities and factions vying for power, many now concede a disastrous lack of planning.
US leader Barack Obama has cited the Libya intervention as the worst mistake of his presidency, telling Fox News that he regretted having failed “to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, in intervening in Libya”.
In Britain, a scathing parliamentary report last month found former prime minister David Cameron “ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy”.
Nicolas Sarkozy, who is angling to win back the French presidency next year, has defended France’s role in Gaddafi’s ouster, while admitting that after the country held elections in 2012 “we let Libya drop”.
A European diplomat who was in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in 2011 said “there was no doubt” that Libya’s second city would have suffered a bloodbath without the intervention.
“There was a real revolution. People did not want to live a minute more under Gaddafi’s Kafkaesque regime,” he said.
Today, the UN-backed unity government is struggling to assert its authority nationwide since arriving in Tripoli in March, with a rival parliament in the east refusing to cede power to it.
In the aftermath of Gaddafi’s overthrow, the dictator’s arsenals were looted, fighters fanned out through neighbouring Niger, Mali and Tunisia, and ISIL gained a foothold on Europe’s doorstep.
A major operation is still under way to oust IS fighters from Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, which the rebels seized in June last year, with fears that they will regroup elsewhere in the country.
In March 2011 the West, led by Britain and France and backed by NATO, enjoyed broad support for the intervention to support the revolution.
After taking up arms in February on the heels of the uprising in Libya’s northwestern neighbour Tunisia, the rebels faced a vicious backlash from Gaddafi.
The entourage of the strongman who had been in power for 42 years promised “rivers of blood”, especially in Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolt.
A UN Security Council resolution with Arab backing — Russia abstained — authorised the use of “all necessary means” to protect civilians and enforce a ceasefire and no-fly zone against Gaddafi’s forces.
It opened the way to Western and Arab air strikes, leading eight months later to the overthrow and death of Gaddafi, who was lynched after his convoy was hit by a NATO air strike.
By then, the conflict had claimed more than 30,000 lives, according to the former rebel National Transitional Council (NTC).
The NTC transferred power to an elected national assembly in August 2012, the first peaceful transition in Libya’s modern history, but rival forces have failed to coalesce into a single authority.
Regional powers jockeying for influence have also added to the instability.
Five years on, Chadian President Idriss Deby is just one of the regional leaders to accuse the West of failing to follow up on the overthrow of Gaddafi.
“You forgot about after-sales service,” he has often said.
A European diplomat said: “In retrospect, we… should not have washed our hands of it collectively. There was a sort of guilty detachment.”
But he said the new leadership “made it clear that they didn’t want foreign forces, including UN peacekeepers” in the country.
Libya expert Mattia Toaldo recalls that the Libyans repeatedly turned down Western offers of help, “saying they could manage on their own”.
Mahmoud Jibril, who was part of the rebel NTC, remembers the early post-Gaddafi days differently, telling reporters: “We warned them we needed them to rebuild our institutions after Gaddafi’s death, but everyone told us ‘our mission is accomplished’.”
What About Syria?
Many point to the devastating war in Syria as a counter-example.
“War is claiming hundreds of thousands of lives in that country,” Toaldo said. “In Libya it is ‘only’ tens of thousands. And a political process is under way, however difficult it is.”
The repercussions are also felt in relations with Russia, with President Vladimir Putin defending Moscow’s role in Syria where it backs Bashar al-Assad.
“Some of the responsibility for what is happening… lies especially with our Western partners, above all the US and its allies,” Putin told French television.
“Remember how everyone rushed to support the Arab Spring? Where is that optimism now?” he asked. “Remember what Libya or Iraq looked like before these countries and their organisations were destroyed as states?”
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