Small Wars Journal

Reflections on the Third Anniversary of the Death of Qaddafi

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 6:31am

Reflections on the Third Anniversary of the Death of Qaddafi

David Wise

As we look back on the third anniversary of the death of Muammar Qaddafi it is impossible to argue with President Obama’s self-assessment that his greatest foreign policy error was made in Libya.  The failure was not to be found in Benghazi as the partisan conspiracy theorists allege or because “leading from behind” is a sign of weakness.  The allegations about the former have been dismissed after thorough investigation and resulted from the fog that inevitably accompanies the immediate aftermath of any tragic event and the latter was a mature assessment that sometimes allies and friends have to act in their own interests – that American soldiers and taxpayers can’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting across 197 million square miles of the earth’s surface.  Unfortunately, the failure – however well-intentioned -- was manifold in terms the of an inability to conceive of and execute an integrated foreign policy, specifically: 

  • The failure to learn lessons from Iraq
  • The  failure to adhere to its own strategy of “Engagement”
  • The depletion of “soft power” reserves in the Middle East, and
  • The failure to place the crisis in Geopolitical perspective


As a state senator and later as a US Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama had correctly decried the shortcomings of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The risk of destabilization via regime change in a country that had been under tight control for decades by a monolithic and brutal regime was quite well understood by 2011.  Pursuing the objective of regime change with no plan of action for the “day after” was clearly seen as a fiasco in leadership almost immediately after the fall of Baghdad and was a major reason behind the dramatic gains by the Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections.  In spite of this the Obama administration and our European allies – including France that opposed Iraq but was a major advocate of taking action in Libya – repeated all of the same mistakes. Regime change, followed by no plan of action, followed by chaos and radicalization.  There is no excuse.


During the 2008 presidential campaign candidate Obama proposed the policy of engagement with troublesome regimes as a major theme for his foreign policy.  He reiterated this message in his Inaugural Address.  Yet, in Libya the west had the poster child for the benefits of engagement in what up until that time was referred to glowingly as “The Libya Model.” In 2003 Libya had renounced terrorism, given up its nuclear weapons program and cooperated with US intelligence about the A. Q. Kahn nuclear proliferation network.  Consequently, the US government did not oppose Libya’s membership on the UN Security Council in 2008-09.  President Obama met also met with Colonel Qaddafi who had been invited to attend the 2009 G8 Summit by the host country Italy. President Bush had sent the first US Ambassador to Libya in 36 years and the Obama continued the policy of recognizing the Qaddafi regime.  The Libyan intervention certainly does not sell the benefits of engagement, a lesson that was likely not lost on Teheran.

Soft Power
A corollary to the policy of engagement was a commitment to employ soft power and to open a dialogue with voices of moderation in the Islamic world.  Early in his administration the President flew to Cairo and stated, “America will defend itself respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law…” In his Nobel address he had stated, “… no nation can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.  For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.”  These words would came back to haunt him when he failed to take action against much larger systematic  massacres of civilians in Syria  In failing to go to Congress for approval of these actions he also contradicted comments made in 2007 when he stated, “The president does not have the power to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping the actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  Candidate Obama had promised the end of “unchecked presidential power” and “no more ignoring the law when convenient.”

In approaching the violence in Libya that arose as part of the so-called Arab Spring the President did nevertheless seek UN authority. The two UN resolutions (1970 and 1973), however, authorized only a no fly zone and an arms embargo. The UN Charter itself authorizes actions to “restore international peace and security” but not “force against another state” or, in this case, regime change.  As carried out, however, the intervention was contrary to these principles.  President Obama not only called for Qaddafi to step down (a legitimate request) but on at least four occasions NATO bombardments targeted the compounds frequented by Qaddafi resulting in the deaths of members of Qaddafi’s family.  In spite of the UN resolutions arms were funneled to the rebels who were ultimately recognized as the legitimate representatives of Libya.  During the presidential debates in 2012 the president acknowledged that regime change had been the objective from the start. In addition, the chaos unleashed in Libya also clearly contributed to the transfer of weapons and increased violence in Mali and Syria. The president’s aggressive adoption of military action, especially drone warfare elsewhere, has undermined the “soft power” promise that greeted his election.


One area of notable success that the Obama administration achieved in its early years was the imposition of sanctions against Iran and then later in regard to Libya with the tacit approval of China and Russia which abstained in the Security Council.  The feeling by both countries, but especially by Russia, that it had been duped in Libya not only made any consensus for humanitarian assistance in Syria out of the question, but complicated continued cooperation by these two powers in dealing with Iran.  The suspicion and, in Russia’s view,  the outright hypocrisy of the United States in talking about international law when it suited its interest  jaundiced the perception of events in Maidan Square and almost certainly played some role in the actions President Putin has taken in Crimea and Ukraine.  An administration that commenced with the hopeful language of “reset” enters its final two years with a dangerously adversarial relationship with Moscow and “salami slicing” in the China Sea.


President Obama was very poorly served by his entire foreign policy team that strongly advised him to take action in Libya contrary to many of the principles he had enunciated up to that time and in intertwining it with the language of the yet inchoate principle of Responsibility to Protect.  First, as stated above, they acted with complete disregard of the clear lessons learned in Iraq.  Second, in doing so they advised that he act in pursuance of a norm that is yet emerging under international law and has not been ratified as American policy.  Thirdly, if they truly care about establishing such humanitarian intervention as a legitimate practice they cannot do so by acting contrary to the language of the authorizing resolutions or by pursuing purely political objectives, such as regime change, lurking under the humanitarian mantel.  The result of such inconsistent behavior has now opened the world to political objectives pursued under the cover of humanitarian assistance and which we are now witnessing elsewhere in the world in military supply convoys and military ships being painted white and therefore operating in a zone of exception that we ourselves created. A final takeaway point is that the president directly intervened in Libya but not in Syria and yet both countries are essentially embroiled in civil wars underscoring perhaps the best advice given on the Middle East in recent memory.  As former Secretary of the Navy and Senator Jim Webb said, do not get in the middle of a five sided argument you do not understand.

About the Author(s)

David W. Wise, a retired business executive, is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law of Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.



Sat, 11/29/2014 - 10:51am

First of all, Muammar Gaddafi died in October. Secondly, in my book, Obama is a coward for betraying his own beliefs or stated beliefs and for betraying a man who had called him son because Obama had African roots. Thirdly, he listened to the blood-thirsty Hillary Clinton, who couldn't be denied her role as power broker and murderer in the area. Or maybe Obama couldn't face the man who was leader of a democracy and who had raised his country up from the crushing poverty and illiteracy created by all those colonial powers who had once called Libya a "sand crate".
The US has absolutely zero right to seek a "regime change" in any country except our own, and what he unleashed after Obama murdered Gaddafi is proof-positive of the horror we foster when we think we know what is better for a country than their own CHOSEN leaders. Libya is now in ruins and chaos. They have been plunged back into the tribal ways before Gaddafi gave them pride, education, democracy, the Great Man-Made River, and money.
What happened to Gaddafi, one of the greatest men of all time, should haunt Obama until the day he dies. A man who had single-handedly and successfully brought his country prosperity and visionary leadership was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver and by a miserable coward.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 11:05am

Would argue that to some degree the comments by the author on say the following;


QUOTE: The feeling by both countries, but especially by Russia, that it had been duped in Libya not only made any consensus for humanitarian assistance in Syria out of the question, but complicated continued cooperation by these two powers in dealing with Iran. The suspicion and, in Russia’s view, the outright hypocrisy of the United States in talking about international law when it suited its interest jaundiced the perception of events in Maidan Square and almost certainly played some role in the actions President Putin has taken in Crimea and Ukraine. An administration that commenced with the hopeful language of “reset” enters its final two years with a dangerously adversarial relationship with Moscow and “salami slicing” in the China Sea. UNQOUTE

definitely fall in the current Russian geo political arguments for their involvement in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

But here is what the author missed in his comment concerning Russia---ever since 1992 the then Soviet Union and now Russia has repeatedly placed blame for all of their problems onto the West and especially "perceived" US slights and violations of what Russia "perceives" to be international law.

There has been repeated statements concerning their "humiliation" by the NATO "promises" of non expansion and that the West in particular the US does not "respect" Russia's right to have a "sphere of influence" as the reasons for Putin's actions --even he has stated this a number of times.

We hear often still today from Russia about the Bosnian solution for the Ukraine and the Kosovo solutions as being their "legal" basis for actions on the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

This article needs to be read and while old the thesis is not far from wrong when one looks at the ultra nationalist slant Russia has taken under Putin.

1992 article on dangers of Russian "neo-messianic" Eurasianism, esp. the conclusions:

This is a most interesting view and it parallels exactly what we are seeing today with Putin, the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The twin schools of "Eurasians" and "Russo-centrists" on the one hand,
and "neo-internationalists" on the other, differ on important issues but are united by the messianic fundamentalist concept of a "Third Way" for
Russia. They share the view that the historical cataclysm that occurred in
Eurasia is more than a simple defeat of communism, but rather the beginning of far-reaching changes in the world order and the first global
revolution. In that sense, Russia is the first country to suffer this trial by fire, which—in their view—awaits the other industrial nations. Through this ideological prism, Russia is not a cluster of backward nations needing Western assistance to catch up, but rather, a pioneer country, paving the way for a new, global order. In a transmuted context, this, of course, recapitulates the self-proclaimed vision of the founders of communism, of leading a new international order. UNQUOTE

At the heart of these complaints and what many US commenters and author here seem to not mention is there has been absolutely no single Soviet and or Russian leader who stepped up after 1992 and took full responsibility for both the political and economic failures of the former Soviet Union and now Russia. even the current Russian Communist Party denies their own responsibilities all the while condemning the US and the West for "violating this and violating that".

One could list easily five major post 1992 agreements/treaties signed by Russia it has either ignored and or violated as practical examples.

Russia collapsed much as the GDR did --from internal decay meaning the economic system was built on a massive Ponzi system of monthly production lies and politically---with their own populations especially the young no longer really believing anything they were being taught/told by the "system".

We still see that attitude in the Russian denial of their "vacationing troops" inside the Ukraine---it is been one constant 40 year long "it ain't us---it is them" being repeated as the smokescreen clouding their own neo imperialistic expansion drive who many can and do call a new form of Russian fascism. Putin himself called the collapse of the SU the worst disaster that ever hit Russia.

The core problem is that the Russian leadership has become so tangled in their own info war propaganda that they can no longer clearly define what is and is not actual reality and that is truly dangerous---at least the old line Communist Soviet leadership understood where and when to stop--Putin knows neither.

When Putin drives Russia to achieve nuclear superiority numbers wise over the US, violates the INF, and threatens over three times the US/NATO/EU with the use of tactical nuclear weapons and when for the Russians MAD is no longer a deterrent then the West in general is in serious trouble.

IMO both China and Russia were fully aware of what the end state for Qaddafi would be--if they did not then their intelligence service chiefs should be fired and to argue the West "surprised them" is simply another smokescreen to argue their current view points.

The following is important to understand as it lends a certain credence to the fact that right now Russia and Putin is in another "altered state of reality" based on their belief in their own propaganda and that was not the case in the old Soviet days.

"In case a major war breaks out" DefMin Shoygu asks Putin to launch obligatory military training for all RU governors

The last time I checked NATO/EU/US had managed to find and offer via their public/private statements at least four different off ramps for Putin to pull back on--he ignored them all as he is dead set on reestablishing the old Soviet Empire, destabilize NATO, destabilize the EU, and to decouple the US from Europe thus establishing Russia as the regional hegemon over all of Europe---the old Czarist dream.

Russian Parliament speaker says has "fantastic idea" for EU to handle current crisis,suggests to throw US out of NATO

Merkel's recent statement after meeting with Putin for over four hours is both telling and revealing as Putin has now "lost" German support for a mediated off ramp and she no longer "believes" Putin understands "reality".

"He radiated coldness" - Merkel, Putin hit diplomatic dead-end
For nearly four hours, Merkel -- joined around midnight by new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker -- tried to get the former KGB agent, a fluent German speaker, to let down his guard and clearly state his intentions.

But all the chancellor got from Putin, officials briefed on the conversation told Reuters, were the same denials and dodges she had been hearing for months.

"He radiated coldness," one official said of the encounter. "Putin has dug himself in and he can't get out." UNQUOTE

We can blame Obama and or blame US for poor judgment and a serious lack of a strategy, but Russia has been on it's long path back to their "perceived superpower status" since 1992 and that seems to be overlooked by commenters and authors alike.

It was all there to read---we are simply not willing to believe that what someone writes in say 1992 is relevant to 2014.