Academic journal article Military Review

The Lessons of Libya

Academic journal article Military Review

The Lessons of Libya

Article excerpt

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WHAT A DIFFERENCE six months make. Early in 2011, an overwhelming majority of American policymakers, opinion makers, and the public were strongly opposed to more military entanglements overseas, particularly a third war in a Muslim country. And there was a strong sense that given our overstretched position due to the war in Afghanistan, continued exposure in Iraq, and--above all--severe economic challenges at home, the time had come to reduce U.S. commitments overseas. In June 2011, when announcing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, President Obama put it as follows: "America, it is time to focus on nationbuilding here at home." Regarding involvement in Libya, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated in March 2011: "My view would be, if there is going to be that kind of assistance [providing arms] to the opposition, there are plenty of sources for it other than the United States." Admiral Mike Mullen raised questions about a Libyan involvement, stating in a March 2011 Senate hearing that a no-fly zone would be "an extraordinarily complex operation to set up."

Six months later, in September 2011, as the military campaign in Libya was winding down, it was widely hailed as a great success. As Helene Cooper and Steven Lee Myers wrote in The New York Times, while "it would be premature to call the war in Libya a complete success for United States interests ... the arrival of victorious rebels on the shores of Tripoli last week gave President Obama's senior advisers a chance to claim a key victory." NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated in early September, "We can already draw the first lessons from the operation, and most of them are positive." In a meeting on 20 September with Libya's new interim leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, President Obama said, "Today, the Libyan people are writing a new chapter in the life of their nation. After four decades of darkness, they can walk the streets, free from a tyrant."

Moreover, Libya was held up as a model for more such interventions. Cooper and Myers wrote, "The conflict may, in some important ways, become a model for how the United States wields force in other countries where its interests are threatened." Philip Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, opined that the Libyan operation was "in many ways a model on how the United States can lead the way that allows allies to support." Leon Panetta, current Secretary of Defense, said that the campaign was "a good indication of the kind of partnership and alliances that we need to have for the future if we are going to deal with the threats that we confront in today's world."

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As international attention turned to the massacres in Syria, world leaders and observers discussed applying the "Libyan model." French President Nicolas Sarkozy pointedly said on his visit to post-Gaddafi Libya, "I hope that one day young Syrians can be given the opportunity that young Libyans are now being given." Syrian activists called for the creation of a no-fly zone over Syria, similar to that imposed over Libya. (1) An August New York Times article noted, "The very fact that the administration has joined with the same allies that it banded with on Libya to call for Mr. Assad to go and to impose penalties on his regime could take the United States one step closer to applying the Libya model toward Syria."

No doubt, as time passes, the assessment of the Libya campaign will be recast--and more than once. Nevertheless, one can already draw several rather important lessons from the campaign.

Lesson 1. Boots off the Ground

The Libya campaign showed that a strategy previously advocated for other countries, particularly Afghanistan, could work effectively. The strategy, advocated by Vice President Joe Biden and John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, entails using airpower, drones, Special Forces, the CIA, and, crucially, working with native forces rather than committing American and allied conventional ground forces. …

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