Just three years have passed since an American-led bombing campaign destroyed the regime of Moammar Khadafy in Libya. At first that operation felt like a victory for peace and freedom. By bringing down the dictator, we presumed we had “liberated” Libyans and that they would quickly settle into pro-American democracy.
The speed with which we have been proven disastrously wrong, however, is breathtaking. So is the sweeping scope of unintended consequences that have flowed from this intervention. Not even those who opposed it imagined how far-reaching its effects would be. This is likely to go down in history as the most ill-conceived intervention of the Obama era.
Recent reports from Libya, issued to coincide with the third anniversary of Khadafy's overthrow and murder, suggest that the state has ceased to exist. There is no central government. According to Amnesty International, "Armed groups and militias are running amok, launching indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and committing widespread abuses, including war crimes, with complete impunity." Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State back guerrilla factions. The unfortunate United Nations envoy, Bernardino Leon, says he can hardly begin to mediate "because the protagonists are hundreds of militias." Full-scale civil war is a real possibility, so the worst may be yet to come.
This could and should have been predicted. Removing a long-established regime is dangerous unless a clear alternative is ready. It produces a power vacuum. Rivals fight for places in the new order. By suddenly decapitating Libya, the United States and its NATO allies made conflict, anarchy, and terror all but inevitable.
American officials were split over the question of whether to bomb Libya in 2011. President Obama finally favored the pro-bombing faction, making this the first military intervention in American history — perhaps the first ever — to be driven principally by women. Its advocates inside the corridors of power were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, then on the National Security Council staff. They warned that Khadafy was planning to attack an opposition stronghold, Benghazi, and set off a humanitarian catastrophe. Although they may have been right, they grievously overestimated America's ability to control the effects of bombing Libya. Fighting in Benghazi over the last month has taken more than 200 lives.
By the time we and our allies deposed Khadafy, he had renounced his nuclear ambitions, ceased to threaten our interests, and kept his country stable for decades, albeit with sometimes brutal methods. We promoted his overthrow without thinking seriously about what kind of regime might follow. Guided by a quintessentially American blend of naive optimism and cultural egocentrism, we allowed ourselves to believe we could crash violently into Libya, destroy all the institutions under which it had lived for more than 40 years, and blithely presume that things would somehow work themselves out peacefully and Libya would become "free."
This was a lamentable failure of strategic imagination. Any wise thinker should have foreseen that wiping away Libya's governing structure almost overnight would set off civil conflict. Some did, including then-secretary of defense Robert Gates. What no one foresaw, however, was that bombing Libya would do something beyond destroying the Libyan state. It has had effects that are now reverberating far beyond Libya's borders.
Khadafy's army included a corps of elite troops from Tuareg tribes in Mali. When he was overthrown, these Tuareg fighters raided his arsenals and drove his heavy weaponry in caravans back to their native Mali. There they used it to set off a conflict that has turned a vast swath of North Africa into an ungoverned area where extremist terror festers and people live under harsh oppression. Weapons from Khadafy's storehouses have also turned up in the hands of other extremist militias, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, famous for kidnapping schoolgirls. This is part of the legacy of our decision to bomb Libya three years ago.
Life under Khadafy was hardly free. Most Libyans, however, could live fairly normal lives as long as they stayed away from politics. Today hardly any Libyan can live a normal life. Nor can anyone in regions being terrorized by groups wielding weapons from Khadafy's looted armories. The sobering legacy of this intervention should give us pause as we consider others.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.