In the first part of a new FPIF Strategic Dialogue on the aftermath of the Libyan War, David Gibbs argues that the long-term consequences of the military intervention are dire. See Michael Berube’s more positive assessment here. You can read their replies here.

David GibbsThe NATO intervention in Libya is likely to produce a more militarized and insecure world, and this will be its most enduring legacy. The military “success”in Libya has increased the possibility of new wars. There is a widespread perception that NATO has achieved an easy victory against Gaddafi, and the resulting sense of hubris augments the risk of future military actions against Iran, Syria, and other possible targets. Politicians in NATO countries surely welcome the public distraction that war provides, especially in the context of the world-wide economic slump, and this may prove an additional motivation for new military action.

And the Libyan success will generate heightened levels of military expenditure. The British military has already been using the intervention as an argument for more funding; the same situation will no doubt occur in France and the United States as well, where the intervention will bring political benefits to the military-industrial complexes of each country. Given limited funds, the relatively higher military budgets that result from this situation will probably reduce funds for education, health, environmental protection, and disease eradication, and also for aid to developing countries, which include Libya.

Another consequence of intervention is the erosion of international law, as indicated by NATO’s disregard of the UN Charter and also the U.S. War Powers Resolution, which were openly flouted in the course of the bombing campaign and the efforts at regime change. In previous eras, U.S. liberals might have criticized the unchecked use of executive power shown by the Obama administration. But such concerns are a thing of the past. With Libya, liberals have shown themselves to be perfectly comfortable with an “imperial presidency.”

In addition, the intervention constitutes a setback for international cooperation aimed at curbing nuclear proliferation: NATO’s decision to overthrow Gaddafi after he had agreed to give up his nuclear weapons development program will surely dissuade other countries such as North Korea from repeating Gaddafi’s mistake. The significance of the intervention will thus extend far beyond Libya itself, and it is this larger class of implications that constitutes the most dangerous implication of the intervention. No one likes to think about the long-term consequences of policy actions, especially where “victory” is involved; but these long-term consequences will remain, all the same, and international security will be compromised as a result.

Libya on the Ground

Let us now turn to the implications of NATO’s victory for Libya and its people. At this level, the outcome seems uncertain, as the facts on the ground are ambiguous. On the one hand, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has achieved full control of the country, and so far has avoided the post-Gaddafi chaos that many had feared. On the other hand, the situation remains unstable, as indicated by the frequent clashes amongrival militia groups for control of Tripoli and other areas. And the NATO intervention itself may pose problems for future stability. Achieving power with external support, the new regime is thus open to criticisms that it is the product of foreign intervention. True, the NATO powers retain some popularity among at least those Libyans that supported the Gaddafi overthrow; but that support may wear thin over time, as the traditional and deeply rooted anti-colonialism of the Libyan people reasserts itself.

Overall, there is little in Libya’s past to suggest a happy ending. The country is comprised of more than one hundred self-identified clan groups, with an additional regional divide between the eastern and western parts of the country, a split that goes back to the period of Ottoman rule. There is no significant precedent for parliamentary democracy. And the only national unity the country has achieved was largely the creation of Muammar Gaddafi.

No one should mourn the fall of Gaddafi, who (despite some accomplishments) remained at base an unsavory and megalomaniacal figure. The question is whether the new regime will prove any better – or worse — than what came before. There are several possible outcomes. The new regime might prove to be a relatively decent and stabilizing force that provides the Libyan people a better quality of life than they had under the Gaddafi dictatorship. Perhaps they will even achieve some form of representative democracy, with impartial rule of law and respect for individual autonomy. Any reasonable person would surely hope for this outcome. But this hardly seems likely. A more plausible scenario is that the central government will fall apart, triggering a renewed civil war between the eastern and western regions. Alternatively, there may be a generalized descent into chaos, without clear battle lines, similar to what happened in Somalia in 1991, after the fall of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Perhaps the most likely scenario would entail a weak and corrupt Libyan central government, which would nominally rule amidst regional instability, economic deterioration, and growing social misery. In an earlier time, the Western powers might have furnished a Marshall Plan-style aid program to ensure the success of the new government. However, such programs have largely gone out of fashion and seem especially unlikely at the present moment, given the austerity-minded regimes in Europe and the United States. The NATO powers surely will congratulate themselves for having financed the bombing campaign but are unlikely to find much money for reconstructing the country. Stated simply, the most likely outcome would be a Libya that ends up in even worse shape than was the case before the fall of Gaddafi.

“Humanitarian” Interventions

There is thus a real danger that the NATO intervention in Libya may end up worsening the situation for the Libyan people. Purported efforts at humanitarian intervention have certainly made things worse in the past. Consider the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which had been governed by regimes that were even more repressive than Gaddafi’s and more repulsive in a moral sense. And so, Western interventions overthrew both regimes, and they did so with the support of many of the same intellectuals who recently supported the overthrow of Gaddafi. The results were disastrous.

At the time of the 2003 Iraq invasion, Juan Cole offered the following endorsement: “I remain convinced that, for all the concerns one might have about the aftermath, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the murderous Baath regime from power will be worth the sacrifices that are about to be made on all sides.” It is painful to read this type of rubbish now, almost a decade later, and it must raise questions about Cole’s judgment. This past endorsement of the Iraq war is also worth recalling in light of Cole’s recent writings on Libya, which once again endorsed intervention.

In general, there is a tendency to assume that interventions termed “humanitarian” must always have positive outcomes. This is indeed a widely held assumption, popularized by Samantha Power’s influential (though poorly researched) book A Problem from Hell. But there is little in the historical record to support this assumption. In fact, military interventions typically make humanitarian situations worse than before, not better, a point dramatically illustrated by the hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted from interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And despite myths to the contrary, past interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo worsened the humanitarian crises in those areas, a point that is well documented even if little known.

First Do No Harm

In medicine, doctors must assume a stance of restraint before taking action; “first do no harm” is the operative principal. We cannot solve all problems, after all, and we should at least not make a bad situation worse by reckless or ill-considered interventions. This principal is well recognized with regard to medical interventions, so why should it not apply as well to military interventions, including those labeled “humanitarian”?

And finally, we must assess the implications of the Libya intervention for the liberal left. This intervention demonstrates liberals’ abandonment of their traditional peace position. Since the end of the Cold War, many liberals have become enamored of military force, in a way that is indistinguishable from the most retrograde and jingoistic elements of the right. Let us be frank and call things by their correct names: The movement for humanitarian intervention – with regard to Libya, Darfur, Iraq, and the Balkans – has always been a pro-war movement, for war is what we are really talking about here.

With regard to matters of tone, the liberal interventionists embody much of the ugliness that has been associated with militarist movements throughout history, including their stance of moral self-righteousness, their tendency to vilify dissent, and their reckless disregard for the risks of military action. There is also a remarkable confidence in the good intentions of military, government, and corporate officials in the intervening powers, combined with a refusal to consider the self-interested motives that these figures have for undertaking intervention. Today, war-mongering is no longer confined to political conservatives. Liberals can also enjoy the thrill and moral uplift of advocating for war–but with no sense of accountability for the consequences of their advocacy.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor David N. Gibbs is professor of history at the University of Arizona in Tucson. His latest book is First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt, 2009). He can be reached at