Presidential Deception in Foreign Policy Making: Military Intervention in Libya 2011

By Weissman, Stephen R. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Presidential Deception in Foreign Policy Making: Military Intervention in Libya 2011


Weissman, Stephen R., Presidential Studies Quarterly


"Of course, there is no question that Libya--and the world--would be better off with Qaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."

--President Barack Obama, Address to the Nation on Libya, March 28, 2011 (White House 2011b).

"In Afghanistan ... I said what everyone in Washington knew but we couldn't officially acknowledge: that our goal in Libya was regime change."

--Former Central Intelligence Agency Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, recounting a statement he made in early July 2011 (Panetta 2014, 354).

Introduction

In August 2011 a U.S.-led, U.N.-authorized military intervention to "protect civilians ... under threat of attack" in Libya (U.N. Security Council 2011c, 3) enabled rebels to overthrow long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Although there was a democratic parliamentary election in July 2012, the country quickly succumbed to the rule of lawless militias. These were largely descended from local rebel brigades that benefited from the intervention. In September an extremist Islamist militia was implicated in the assassination of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in the former rebel capitol of Benghazi. Today Libya is widely characterized as a "failed state." Rival governments--in the West and in the East--proclaim their legitimacy. But effective political and economic power resides in hundreds of competing militias, including newer Islamic State and tribal formations. In 2014, fighting killed up to 2,500 people (International Crisis Group 2015, i). In February 2016 the Obama administration debated using military force against the Islamic State grouping (Schmitt 2016).

On the international level, the undisciplined outflow of arms, ethnic fighters and Islamic extremists from postwar Libya precipitated an Islamic extremist takeover of half the nation of Mali and strengthened jihadists from North and West Africa to the Egyptian Sinai. The intervention, mainly organized by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), aggravated relations between the United States and Russia. The latter continues to denounce alleged Western misuse of the United Nations to force regime change. Recently the chaos in Libya precipitated a breakdown of coastal migration controls, contributing to a risky mass exodus of African and Middle Eastern refugees toward Europe.

These developments raise important questions about presidential policy making in Libya (Congress did not play a role). How did an intervention justified by humanitarian concern become one that overturned a regime and ushered in its chaotic successor? Did the Obama administration consider alternative policies that might have avoided the worst consequences of the intervention? Are there any implications for the integrity of the American democratic process?

On these issues, the post-intervention reflections of former and current U.S. officials are less than satisfying. In a 2015 article in Foreign Affairs, two former members of the National Security Staff wrote, "The military campaign that the United States designed and led (even if from behind the scenes) was tightly limited to ending attacks against civilians and achieving a cease-fire that would pave the way for a political transition ... As a result of his intransigence, it was Qaddafi himself and not NATO who turned the intervention from a mission to protect civilians into something that led to regime change" (Chollet and Fishman 2015, 155). The authors ask their readers to believe that Qaddafi had the power to force NATO to do "something" that overthrew him. Having endowed him with the decisive agency, they do not find it necessary to consider whether alternative U.S. and NATO approaches might have produced a better political transition. …

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