What Went Wrong in Libya
And where do we go from here?


No one among our publicists and politicians criticized the mistake of withdrawing NATO so hastily – an obvious and glaring mistake. This is the source of our current failure to diagnose accurately what has gone right and wrong in Libya. Our discourse on Libya has excluded this central causal point ever since the moment of victory.

In Iraq, our publicists, with near-unanimity, pummeled the Bush administration for failing to take responsibility for public order after it toppled the Saddam Hussein regime. This was accurate, constructive criticism; a costly surge was needed to correct the mistake. But it turns out that it was partisan ideological hostility that motivated the accurate criticism. The same mistake was repeated in Libya, in still cruder form, without any criticism of Obama for it.

We cannot do a consistent intervention when our leaders are at best only half in favor of the role of our power in the world, and when their ideological base habitually blames our power for the ills of the world. We end up hedging against our own intervention, littering it with contradictions.


There was another twist to our limitations during the intervention and our haste to get out. We sought Russia’s consent and Security Council consensus. This was worth a lot. But not only did we do it when necessary, yielding a resolution with a mandate that enabled the British and French governments to decide to go to war but that also contained self-contradictory inadequacies. We also proceeded to vote alongside Russia to end the mandate and cut the NATO intervention short.

These were genuine instances of “outsourcing” our foreign policy to the U.N. and to Russia, as the Romney campaign has put it.

This point should not be understood as meaning that it was wrong to get a U.N. mandate, or to get cooperation from Russia. These were exceedingly valuable. Obama deserves credit for doing the work to get them on board in Libya, as did Bush in Afghanistan.

It does, however, mean that we need to be realistic about both. Russia’s attitudes on cooperation with us are self-contradictory at best. Security Council mandates are bound to have self-contradictory aspects as long as this remains the case. We have to take our own counsel on how to deal with the contradictions.

We were hoping to limit the hostile reaction in Russia by terminating the intervention hastily. It didn’t work.

We got blamed anyway, in the mainstream Russian discourse, for the chaotic consequences of the constraints and the termination — consequences that seemed to validate the objections Russia had made against intervening in the first place, if one ignored the causal sequence. Russians came to say, with the kind of unanimity that protects people from noticing their own illogic, that those consequences proved the intervention was a mistake and that they should never again acquiesce in a NATO intervention. The Russian elite blamed us for “tricking” it in order to get its consent in the Security Council for a Libya intervention that inevitably went beyond the U.N. resolution. Some Russian analysts have argued that, today, Putin would rather the West intervened unilaterally in Syria than drag him along on this, too. It would let him wash his hands of it. And, from a Western standpoint, it would let us be more consistent.

Russia is not, regrettably, the only country with an insistent unanimity in its more foolish lines of discourse. There is an insistent unanimity in American discourse that has shielded us from noticing the extent, and the illogic, of our support for the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and for the Muslim Brotherhood parties in these countries; it has allowed most of our officials and journalists to criticize themselves only for not supporting the revolution and the Brotherhood even more. Russia, in regretting these two revolutions, has sided with Western interests better than our own government. There would be space for a more serious dialogue with Russia on the rest of the Mideast, if we had an administration capable of recognizing that we have been wrong on Egypt.


After the attack and murders at our consulate, mass demonstrations ensued in Libya — against the Islamists and militias, not against us. The Islamist-backed prime minister resigned. This gave us a second chance: a chance once again, as in the days after Qaddafi fell, to help move the balance of Libya in the direction we want.