Hey Spencer Ackerman: do you still think Libya ended successfully?

Back in 2011, the Libyan intervention was a bit of an obsession of mine. It wasn’t just that we were starting yet another deployment of American military power in the Middle East. It was how desperate liberals, after years of complaining about Iraq, wanted to be seen as tough, cool, and serious. Self-styled liberals and progressives fell all over themselves to declare this a good war. When it comes to foreign policy, American political journalists and analysts fall into two camps: those who support every conceivable military operation imaginable, and those who take a kind of tick-tock approach to warmaking, being sure to balance their rejection of one conflict with the aggressive embrace of another, in order to prove how Very Serious they are in the village that is elite political media. A potential third alternative– a profoundly necessary alternative, given the last decade and a half of American failure– is a set of pundits and journalists who recognize that military intervention is almost always a disaster for both America and the people on whose behalf our military supposedly intervenes, and who therefore oppose military adventurism and aggressive foreign policy as a matter of principle. This third alternative essentially does not exist within connected, elite media.

In the immediate aftermath of the Libyan intervention, Ackerman spoke for the liberal hawks, if only after the fact. Here’s what he had to say in 2011:

In the spirit of intellectual honesty, I need to concede that I got the Libya war wrong. Several Danger Room pieces under my byline ran this year predicting that Libya was an open-ended mission, lacked a clear plan for victory, and could lead to NATO peacekeepers battling post-Gadhafi insurgents. While reasonable people can disagree about whether the war was in the U.S. interest (or even legal), or whether President Obama portrayed it honestly, the fact is that the war successfully ended after eight months, contrary to consistent predictions on display here.

We owe it to you to acknowledge forthrightly that we were wrong, and probably too blinded with fears of Iraq 2.0. It’s not just the Pentagon that has trouble with predictions.

This is a Very Serious fellow! And a seriously very wrong fellow. Libya is in chaos. Nothing was finished. Nothing was successful. The country is broken, utterly broken. The political apparatus is in shambles. Basic governance has failed. Militias vie for control. Ordinary citizens lack any control of their country and suffer without basic services. All of this was predictable. Some of us warned as much at the time. Like me!

what actually matters– what has moral valence– is the material condition of the lives of the Libyan people. Nothing there is finished. Nothing is settled. To call it a democracy now would be an absurd act of projection. Many corrupt men are now freely operating in Libya, armed to the teeth and with a feeling of entitlement. Some of them want to execute homosexuals, oppress women, and adopt Islamic theocracy. Some want to ensure the ascension of their tribe or clan. Some just want to get their piece of the pie. But that’s the reality. There is neither security nor stability yet, and anyone who actually cares for the future of the Libyan people would admit that.

As I said at the time, the time frame of genuine humanitarianism– of ensuring that actual human beings are capable of living lives with basic material security and democratic power– is far, far longer than the time frame of pundit careerism. To declare Libya won at that date was wrong on its face, as there was no possibility that anyone could have safely said that security and political stability had been established. Those things take time, and I’m afraid our political media doesn’t have time to wait.

So Spencer. (In the spirit of intellectual honesty!) Care to revise your opinion on Libya?

Update: Some people are saying to me, well, it may not have ended successfully for Libya, but from the point of view of NATO, it was a successful mission. That doesn’t make any sense. The only pretext for this war was humanitarianism. There was never any self-defense argument made. Since the humanitarian outcome was the only goal, and the humanitarian  situation is a disaster, you can’t call Libya a win for intervention.


  1. The case for “humanitarian intervention” (at least the sort that claims to be grounded in international law) is not that it leads to civic health and well-being, or that anything is “finished” or “settled” thereby. It is that an intervention will prevent or end a concrete, determinate crime against humanity. It doesn’t take the long-term conditions into view at all, except in so far as to not foreseeably make things worse down the road.

    Not saying Ackerman is right, just that the the terms of the debate should be clear.

    1. Matt, I think that sets a bit too easy of a criteria, particularly by use of the term forseeability. The state of human security thereafter is how one judges whether it makes “make things worse down the road.” If I understand the research correctly, the main kind of intervention that does succeed is Peacekeeping (not peace enforcing) and it can meet the material standard.

      That said, by standard, widely used, international relations definitions of war, the war did end after eight months. The average civil war duration is 10 years, although I believe Libya was in the category of one-sided violence and not full on civil year at the time of the intervention.

      deBoer has ever right to reject that definition, but as someone in the tick-tock camp, I think his strongest claim is against the success. It seems fair to me to say that burden of proof is on supporters such as myself.

      Success certainly can’t be proven until the situation is more stable, and I do not put it in the failure camp because right now we do have ongoing civil wars with death tolls vastly exceeding that of Libya. Should a full on civil war start, I’ll concede failure. If we do get to success, it will probably take several more years and require that material conditions rise past what we could reasonably have expected had the one-sided violence continued while having significantly fewer casualties than we could have reasonably expected.

      What I don’t know is whether the present material conditions in Libya are better or worse than in countries with ongoing one sided massacres of the sort that had already begun in Libya. I consider it a fair indictment that I don’t know that answer, which is why I’m writing a comment at midnight rather than going to bed. That said, I don’t think anyone knows, but probably the regionalists come closest and many of them were also in the tick-tock camp and have opposed intervention in Syria.

      1. To nail things down slightly, I think the overthrow of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia by military force and the undercutting of Hamas after it was elected to lead Palestine are clear examples in recent years of failed multilateral interventions.

  2. Ackerman opposed the intervention, but his assessment is basically correct. The concern was that without intervention, we would have gotten to where we are now much sooner as Gadaffi slaughtered thousands of innocents. That did not happen. However, more specifically, Ackerman was concerned that we would have Iraq 2.0 and a never ending war with us involved. That didn’t happen. You can try to make the case that we should have let Gadaffi slaughter everyone because we would have ended up with fewer overall deaths, but that is not the case you appear to be making.


    1. I am in fact making the case that a) the Libyan war never ended and b) it certainly didn’t end successfully, and further c) that since the only — literally the only — justification of this conflict was humanitarian, and the results have been a humanitarian disaster, then it is by definition a failure. And now, I will add d), which is that if you think that your circular hypothetical somehow amounts to a meaningful defense of our slaughter, you’re deluded, and e), that if you look at the results of our actions as anything like a success, you’re a moral degenerate. Since we’re getting condescending with each other, right, Steve?

    2. Whether or not allowing Ghadafi to stay in power would get us ‘where we are now much sooner’ was never part of the debate. It was whether or not the Libyan army should be allowed to re-capture lightly defended rebel controlled cities, particularly Benghazi, and potentially massacre its citizens.

      NATO prevented that potential outcome but left a failed state with an ongoing low intensity civil war in its wake. This, among others, is the moral murkiness that those who call the war successful fail to grapple with.

  3. “It is that an intervention will prevent or end a concrete, determinate crime against humanity.”

    Since almost literally every armed intervention in the history of humanity is justified in this fashion this is saying precisely nothing.

  4. “Self-styled liberals and progressives fell all over themselves to declare this a good war.”

    This is always a problem when the words “progressive” and “liberal” carry hardly any moral meaning — when (at least with the former word) using it on an audience is like declaring you’re a hockey fan. I think this is only going to get more obvious as Hillary Clinton calls herself a “progressive” every other day for the next two years.

    And then, there is a school of progressive history that sees every US / British / French military intervention from 1914 onward as a beneficent step toward spreading the blessings of democracy to the darkest regions (even if they concede that the military strategy was awful). That was definitely at play around the time of the Libya airstrikes.

  5. We saw a specific crime in the making and, with international and Arab support, prevented it, ending with the death of the criminal ruler. We then turned over the governance of Libya to its people (or did not assume it). That was a success, in that the humanitarian purpose was accomplished, a threatened slaughter was prevented and the US (and its Allies) exited safely.
    The causes of the later civil war are a melange of ancient and current wrongs and grudges which, thank the stars, we did not seek to resolve nor for which are we responsible.
    Freddie confuses cause and occasion.

    1. Again: it is nonsensical to speak of a humanitarian purpose being accomplished when the humanitarian outcome has been disastrous. That makes no sense.

    2. Wasn’t the “specific crime” largely ginned up by the pro-war punditry?

      Besides, if there were armed gangs who took over American cities, you can bet the American military would not be gentle. The Civil War in the US killed 600,000 people. States facing existential threats use violence. IT’s by definition what they are.

      I think the real reason is that Libya had enough money to establish an independent banking system and not have to kowtow to western dictates. As the sanctions fail, we will see the same thing happen in Russia as they establish new axes with China and possibly India.

      1. The specific crime was that oil exports to Europe were being interrupted. Now that this might be happening again look for another humanitarian intervention to rescue the poor, besieged oil terminals.

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