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OPINION

Obama’s ‘biggest mistake’ is still wreaking havoc

The bombing of Libya scattered weapons across Africa and worsened instability in the region.

Then-President Barack Obama spoke to the press about Libya in Chilmark, Mass., in August 2011.
Then-President Barack Obama spoke to the press about Libya in Chilmark, Mass., in August 2011.AFP/Getty Images/AFP

Last month in Mali, an African nation twice the size of Texas, military rebels overthrew the government. It was the kind of event that Americans barely notice: another coup in another distant country where people can’t find ways to live together. The truth is more damning. This coup was not the result of personal rivalries or “ancient hatreds.” Instability in Mali, and across North Africa, is a long-term result of the NATO attack on Libya in 2011.

That attack, in which the United States played a key role, may now be ranked among the most recklessly self-defeating military interventions of the 21st century. It was sold as “humanitarian intervention,” but wound up producing a human rights disaster. It turned Libya, once one of the most stable and prosperous countries in Africa, into a failed state and breeding ground for terror. In nearby countries, it has nourished a generation of murderous militias. The coup in Mali shows that after-effects of the Libya attack are still reverberating.

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Libya’s leader, Muammar Qaddafi, had been a thorn in America’s side for decades. He had aided terrorists, including those who blew up an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. In his later years, though, he came out of the political cold. Under an agreement painstakingly negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, Libya paid $1.7 billion to a fund for victims of Lockerbie and other terror attacks. Then, eager to show his good will, Qaddafi went a step further. He agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program. That may have been his fatal mistake. Stripped of his nuclear deterrent, he was exposed to those in the West who wanted to punish him for years of defiance.

When Libyan protesters took to the streets at the beginning of 2011, Qaddafi’s police fired on them. He threatened to hunt down the rest “house by house.” That gave his foreign enemies the motive — or excuse — they needed to attack. France, which has a colonial history in Libya, pushed the idea of a NATO bombing campaign. The stated purpose would be to defend civilians. All understood, however, that such an attack would probably also topple a dictator who had thumbed his nose at the West for decades.

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Intense debate broke out within the Obama administration. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Vice President Joe Biden, and military commanders argued against bombing Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and two National Security Council aides, Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes, argued in favor. Obama, in what he called a “51-49” decision, ultimately sided with the bombers. Gates later wrote that they “failed to anticipate the chaos that would follow.” That was an understatement.

American and allied forces bombed Libya for several months in mid-2011. By that autumn, Libya’s government had collapsed and Qaddafi had been murdered. Secretary Clinton reveled in the triumph: “We came, we saw, he died.” Very soon, however, this victory began turning sour.

During his more than 40 years in power, Qaddafi had allowed no political opposition and tolerated no civil society. As a result, there was no group, party, or institution to replace him. Libya quickly fell into violent chaos. It turned out that Qaddafi had maintained hundreds of arms warehouses at which he stored mind-boggling arrays of weaponry. They had been under the control of squads personally loyal to him, recruited not from Libya but from among Tuareg tribes that populate much of northwest Africa. With Qaddafi gone, the Tuaregs looted the warehouses they had once guarded. Inside were not just infantry rifles but heavy machine guns, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, all-terrain vehicles, and other weapons systems that had not been widely seen in North Africa. The Tuaregs began sending caravans of these arms back to their homeland, Mali, where they hoped to revive a separatist war.

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Tuareg fighters lost much of their new weaponry in battles with jihadist groups associated with al Qaeda and ISIS. Arms dealers acquired large troves and sold them to militant gangs across North Africa. According to a UN report, “arms originating from Libya have significantly reinforced the military capacity of terrorist groups operating in different parts of the region, including in Algeria, Egypt, Mali, and Tunisia.”

Not all violence in North Africa is the work of fighters carrying weapons looted from Libya, and it is not clear whether any were used in the recent Mali coup. It was those weapons, however, that fueled the breakdown of societies over the last decade and produced today’s upheaval.

In 1996, the New York Times described Mali as one of Africa’s “most vibrant democracies.” Now it is racked by conflict and upheaval. Last month’s coup was the second in a decade. Several thousand French troops, reinforced by American drones, British helicopters, and UN peacekeepers, strike occasional blows but have little prospect of crushing well-armed insurgents. Weaponry that flooded out of Qadaffi’s arsenal has decisively changed security calculations in North Africa. For tens of millions of people, that means poverty, hunger, displacement, fear of marauding raiders, and the destruction of families, economies, and nations.

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Americans don’t feel the results of our foreign misadventures. In other parts of the world, though, a “51-49” decision by an American president can have shattering effects. Obama has described his failure to anticipate the after-effects of bombing Libya as his “biggest mistake.” Many people in North Africa would agree.


Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.