Libya: What Really Happened, What’s To Come

Remarks by Christian Whiton

Henry Jackson Society

Parliament, London

November 17, 2011

Thank you Mr. Kawczynski for that introduction and for hosting us here at Parliament. It’s great to be back here at the Henry Jackson Society, which has done such excellent work on behalf of security and freedom.

Unlike so many big think tanks, which all too often have become echoes of establishment voices and doctrine, HJS has been a platform these last six years for ideas and information that people serious about defending freedom and a civilized order should want to hear. Frankly, we could use a Henry Jackson Society in Washington.

Last month, the Libya War came to a successful conclusion with the decisive end of the Qaddafi regime. Free nations like ours are safer as a result, and the Libyan people have long-overdue chance for democracy.

Of course, those in policy-making positions on both sides of the Atlantic have also heralded this as a great vindication of their wisdom.

For example, on October 20th, the day the rebels killed Qaddafi, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen remarked that “NATO and our partners have successfully implemented the historic mandate of the United Nations to protect the people of Libya.”

That same day, President Obama said “Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives… [W]orking in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”

Also that day, the President said “There’s no doubt that we did exactly what we said we were going to do in Libya, and I think it underscores the capacity of us to work together as an international community.”

I would like to suggest some different conclusions:

    • First, the fabled “international community” did what it does best during the Libya War--very little;

    • Second, NATO did not have its finest hour, but in fact demonstrated its impotence and increasing obscurity;

    • Third, what had become a stalemate on the ground in Libya was turned into victory largely by Persian Gulf governments and NATO combatant commanders interpreting policies with maximum creativity—or setting their own policies outside of the vaunted “international community”; and

    • Fourth, not only the Obama administration, but Washington at large—as well as many allied capitals—remain lost when it comes to situational awareness and effective policy on the Middle East amid the political turmoil there.

In Libya, there is much about which to be optimistic. Domestic Islamists are not well positioned. While no birthing of democracy is ever smooth—it is after all by definition a unruly competition of ideas and powerbrokers—free Libya seems off to a strong start, especially with its impressive new Prime Minister, Abdurrahim El-Keib.

I’ll talk about what I believe to be taking place now in Libya, the political challenges that lay ahead for those seeking sustained, accountable government, and the poor position we in West continue to be in to understand and shape these matters.

But first, it’s worth revisiting how we arrived at this point.


As with every political development in the Middle East during his administration—from the emergence of the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, to uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria—the early days of the Libya uprising again found President Obama and his aides unsure of how to proceed. The mass wellspring of support for accountable government in the Middle East simply was not something with which this White House or the Washington foreign policy establishment thought it would have to contend.

In those fateful early days after the mid-February uprising began, we should recall that Qaddafi faced protests and disorder not only in traditionally rebellious precincts away from the capital city—but in Tripoli itself. We will never know if decisive early action by the West could have forced Qaddafi from power without a civil war—in other words an outcome like that which was effected in neighboring Tunisia.

What we can know with certainty is that this was not tried. We did not rapidly implement steps like the establishment of communications with the protestors, the employment of financial and communications tools in a concerted political warfare campaign against Qaddafi, or the immediate dispatch of naval forces as a show of support to rebels and a warning to Qaddafi, for example.

Instead, significant unrest existed for two weeks in Libya before President Obama said Qaddafi must go. And it would be weeks more before the no-fly zone was declared over Libya and strikes began. The first allied actions took place on March 19—over a month after the uprising began and only after the situation had become desperate for the rebels.

The war would last six months.

From the beginning, it did not appear that the White House or NATO had a real plan for success. The very people who came to power in part by lambasting their predecessors for having no “exit strategy” in Iraq were about to embark on a war (carefully called anything but a war) without a discernable path to victory.

Instead of starting with a desired outcome in Libya and working backward through the steps to guide events toward that outcome, the Obama administration—and the rest of NATO by and large—focused instead on the process, not the product.

In announcing the ‘non-war,’ President Obama used a justification that was unique in American history. He said: “So we must be clear - Actions have consequences, and the writ of the international community must be enforced. That is the cause of this coalition.”

So are we to believe that casus belli was not freedom or security, or clearly articulated national interests, but enforcing the “writ” of the international community?

Indeed, the highest priority of all seemed to be on the U.S. not leading, whatever the outcome in Libya. The White House prioritized seeking the imprimatur of the UN. The results were predictable. While the Security Council eventually endorsed the no-fly zone, it also enacted an imprecise arms embargo. Some believed the arms embargo applied only to Qaddafi, while others, including some permanent members of the Security Council, thought it applied to the entire geography of Libya and all parties within.

Somewhat humorously and somewhat sadly, the Obama administration believed both. A State Department spokesman said that arming the rebels would be “illegal.” But asked if the U.S. could arm the rebels, White House spokesman Jay Carney said “there was a few weeks ago a statement that the arms embargo prevented us from doing that, and in fact, there’s flexibility within that to take that action if we thought that were the right way to go.”

Here in Britain, Defense Secretary Liam Fox said that the embargo applied to all of Libya—the rebels included.

But the debate in Washington over the UN embargo was essentially moot. Whether as part of a coordinated policy or not, the Obama administration not only refused to arm the rebels, it also went a step further and had a de facto arms embargo of its own in place—dealing a serious blow to the rebels’ ability to go on the offensive.

U.S. law requires State Department approval for the export of any arms or ammunition. The Obama administration refused to issue any such approvals. Furthermore, many NATO members look for a nod from the U.S. before allowing the export of arms or ammunition from their countries—especially newer NATO members that manufacture the Soviet-design materiel that was compatible with the rebels and their equipment.

In essence, while the U.S. and NATO were going to war on behalf of the rebels (despite a refusal to declare this clearly), the White House was inexplicably taking steps to prevent those rebels from defending themselves and taking ground—a necessary step to ending the war, and ensuring the no-fly zone was not another open-ended commitment (like the decade long one over Iraq before 2003).

Another serious policy mistake came in the form of another nod to Left orthodoxy. Washington and other NATO capitals were saying that combat operations were only to defend against a humanitarian disaster. While Mr. Obama said “Qaddafi must go,” he never said “the rebels must win” or publicly chose the obvious mission of helping the rebels do that.

As a result, the air campaign was originally heavily constrained by the unworkable and unclear mission given to the military. Qaddafi forces caught in the act of attacking the rebels could be targeted, but coordinating with the rebels to push back was not done—at least not at first and never with efficiency.

Last but not least in the list of policy failures was the money. Despite copious talk by Western officials about unfreezing Qaddafi-related funds and turning them over to the rebels—who desperately needed money to run the cities they had freed and to obtain resources to fight Qaddafi on the ground—in Washington the White House never unfroze more than token amounts, and this remains an unfulfilled task even today.

You might then ask how—if all of this happened and if it was so bad—did the rebels win? I believe there are three reasons:

    • First, Gulf nations—especially the United Arab Emirates and Qatar—were willing to supply the rebels with the money and materiel they needed in order to turn the tide on the ground. The scope and importance of this action is not yet fully appreciated and may never be.

    • Second, the combatant commanders who ran the air war eventually exercised maximum creativity in interpreting what a humanitarian bombing constituted. What started as point defense of civilians under attack by Qaddafi forces evolved by necessity, so that by the end of the war, air power was more directly helping the rebels in their advance.

    • Third, the determination and skill of the irregular rebel forces proved effective and durable, even if it did not appear pretty on television. Coming off a decade where, in Afghanistan and Iraq, building domestic forces willing and able to fight for their own freedom has been difficult—we should see the willingness of a people to fight for their own freedom for the godsend it was.

I’ll note in passing that much of the commentariat in Washington got this—and the war in general—wrong, which probably did not help policymakers in choosing the path to take. Throughout the war and subsequently, it has been a constant refrain by commentators that “we do not know who the rebels are.” This was at best lazy. In fact, the rebels and their leadership in the National Transitional Council were the most ‘knowable’ of any group to emerge in Arab Spring. They articulated their principles clearly in writing, seemed to mean what they said, and listed their members—many of whom were accessible and had spent considerable time in the U.S., Europe and allied Gulf nations.


Looking ahead in Libya after the war, that commentariat is not doing much better. Many in Washington remain deeply affected by Iraq, and are inclined to see post-conflict situations through the lens of Iraq. So many look warily for sectarian disunity and violence to begin. They see in occasional residual violence in Libya (like that this week), in the detention of Qaddafi confidantes and combatants, in the transition to a postwar military chain of command, in the growing pains that any new democracy will have—the recipe for chaos like that which followed the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

But Libya is extremely different than Iraq and the Libyans with whom I have spoken are optimistic and remarkably clear on where the country needs to go.

In the immediate near-term, Prime Minister El-Keib must select ministers and deputy ministers to run the interim government. That means several dozen accomplished Libyans—at home or abroad—who are clean of Qaddafi ties, have executive skill and political acumen, care enough about the future of Libya to serve, but are also willing to forgo public office after the transitional period—a requirement that is to be placed on them. Understandably, the choices for the defense and interior ministries are the most politically sensitive to make.

Two key things to watch include:

    • First, the path to elections and a subsequent government. The broad outlines of this process were set before the end of the war, with successive polls scheduled to choose architects of the Libya’s future government, followed by its executives. There is room for interpretation for how and what will be done in the interim. It is worth noting that no democracy has gotten this right on the first try after a revolution—including the U.S. and France—and we should not allow the absence of perfection in Libya to cause despair about its future.

    • Second, the emergence of political parties will be critical. The Libyans with whom I have spoken recognize the need for liberals and moderates to organize in order to succeed. Elsewhere in the region, Islamists have shown themselves to be better organized when political turbulence emerges. The success of their opponents in organizing will be a key metric of success.

Furthermore, on the matter of Islamists, Libya appears to be in much better shape than neighboring Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists do not have the beachhead in Libya that they have elsewhere. Nonetheless, there are risks, as Islamists have repeatedly proved themselves adept in using democracy to undermine democracy. Recent examples include Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Authority and the Sadr bloc in Iraq.

Libyans with whom I have spoken also believe that Qatar is attempting to influence directly political outcomes in Libya, and is backing Islamists. There are differing opinions as to why, but Libyans believe Qatar channeled arms to more Islamist-inclined individuals and groups during the war to empower them—and Doha continues to support them at present.

Unfortunately, these political matters—and the broader contest between Islamists and moderates or liberals—seems lost on Washington and some other capitals. Secretary Clinton felt obliged to declare that, in Egypt, the U.S. was reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood, but it would have only “limited contact.” Call me a cynic, but when the Department goes out of its way to stress the “limited” nature of engagement, I suspect the engagement and its negative consequences are actually likely to be “unlimited.”

Unfortunately, many still cling to the belief that bringing Islamists into a democracy will control them and invest them in the new democracy. But there are no instances where this has happened, and plenty where the opposite has occurred—including the ones I mentioned earlier.

In closing, I would contrast the situation in the early Cold War to today. Then, as now, following a period of violence, there was a critical political contest in newly freed nations between two opposing and irreconcilable camps. In Italy, Greece and other provinces of the West, communists and their backers in foreign capitals were seeking to use democracy itself to undermine freedom.

The West finally pushed back. It took time and effort to obtain situational awareness, speak clearly about the threats, and organize for the struggle. But we did.

We can do this again today, but have not yet chosen to do so. There is no Political Warfare Executive in Britain. There is no U.S. Information Agency in America. And our intelligence agencies are long out of the business of influencing—or perhaps even really understanding—political developments that impact our interests significantly.

What we are seeing may be the greatest political opportunity for freedom for some time. It can—and likely will—enhance our security and other interests dramatically. But we should not leave completely to chance—in Libya, Egypt or elsewhere—what will affect us a great deal.

Thank you for having me here today. I look forward to your questions.