Learning from Libya

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?