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Learning from Libya

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MELBOURNE – There are important lessons to be learned from what went wrong with the NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011. US President Barack Obama was right about that in his recent wonderfully frank interview in The Atlantic. But if we are not to compound the world’s misery, we have to take away the right lessons from that intervention. We can agree that Libya is now a mess, with Islamic State forces holding significant ground, the United Nations-facilitated peace process faltering, and atrocities continuing on all sides. Indeed, human security is generally in worse shape than it was under Muammar el-Qaddafi. We can also agree, as Obama evidently does, that far less thought, energy, and resources went into planning for life after Qaddafi than tearing him down; that France, the United Kingdom, and other US allies pulled their weight less than they should have; and that all the interveners profoundly underestimated the complexity of the shifting personal, tribal, and regional enmities and alliances that made the civil war both so bloody and so inconclusive.

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MELBOURNE – There are important lessons to be learned from what went wrong with the NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011. US President Barack Obama was right about that in his recent wonderfully frank interview in The Atlantic. But if we are not to compound the world’s misery, we have to take away the right lessons from that intervention.

We can agree that Libya is now a mess, with Islamic State forces holding significant ground, the United Nations-facilitated peace process faltering, and atrocities continuing on all sides. Indeed, human security is generally in worse shape than it was under Muammar el-Qaddafi.

We can also agree, as Obama evidently does, that far less thought, energy, and resources went into planning for life after Qaddafi than tearing him down; that France, the United Kingdom, and other US allies pulled their weight less than they should have; and that all the interveners profoundly underestimated the complexity of the shifting personal, tribal, and regional enmities and alliances that made the civil war both so bloody and so inconclusive.

But does all of this mean that no military intervention should have occurred? And does it mean that the United States, in particular, should never again act to protect civilians experiencing, or at risk of, genocide and other crimes against humanity except when its own core national-security interests are much more obviously at stake?

There are plenty of commentators only too willing to draw such conclusions from Obama’s Atlantic interview. He is reported as saying that the Libyan intervention “didn’t work,” that the country “is not at the core of our interests,” that “we can’t relieve all the world’s misery,” and that “there is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa.” Wasn’t he saying, more or less, that this intervention was precisely the kind of “stupid shit” that America should seek to avoid at all costs?

Well, no, he wasn’t, actually. As is often the case, Obama’s position is more nuanced. He also said in the interview that “if it is possible to do good at a bearable cost, to save lives, we will do it”; that “there are going to be times when we can do something about innocent people being killed”; and that he was “focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake.”

True, Obama makes clear that sometimes the cost of action will be unbearable, and that there will be times when effective action is just not possible. But those constraints on the use of force are universally understood. It is accepted that the bar has to be set very high, with military action a last resort, only to be taken proportionally, and where more good than harm will be done.

The way in which Obama articulated his position is completely consistent with...

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