Libya’s ‘Regime Change’ Chaos

America’s war hawks, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were thrilled by the Libyan “regime change” engineered through a U.S.- European bombing campaign in 2011. But now with Libya torn by civil war and Arab powers intervening, the “victory” has a bitter aftertaste, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Within the past week the United Arab Emirates, aided by Egypt, conducted airstrikes against Islamist militias in Libya. The targeted forces are among the contestants in the surging turmoil and civil warfare in Libya.

The airstrikes do not appear to be part of a large and bold new initiative by Egypt and the UAE, which did not even publicly acknowledge what they had done. Nonetheless the strikes were, as an anonymous U.S. official put it, not constructive.

Ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi shortly before he was murdered on Oct. 20, 2011.

Ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi shortly before he was murdered on Oct. 20, 2011.

The incident, along with some questions about whether it had caught the United States by surprise, has led to some of the usual hand-wringing about how U.S. relations with allies are not what they should be, how there supposedly is region-wide dismay with a U.S. failure to do more to enforce order in the region, and how if the United States does not do more along this line there may be an interventionist free-for-all.

This type of reaction is inappropriate for at least two reasons. One is that it fails to take account of exactly how differences between putative partners do or do not make a difference. Sometimes such frictions matter for U.S. interests and sometimes they don’t. Assuaging an ally is good for the United States if there is some payoff, not necessarily immediately, for its interests in behavior from the ally that is different from what it otherwise would be.

The other reason is that to the extent the United States may have encouraged interventionist free-for-alls, it is because it has done too much rather than too little. The United States’ own penchant for military interventions has been probably the biggest factor in a breakdown of previous noninterventionist norms in international relations.

The United States also has acquiesced in similar norm-breaking behavior by others that is easy for the Egyptians and Emiratis to see. As former ambassador Chas Freeman notes, “Gulf states and Egypt have seen many instances of Israel doing whatever it wants without us. They’re saying, if Israel can use U.S. weapons to defy the U.S. and pursue its own foreign policy objectives, why can’t they?”

Three valid observations are worth making about this episode. One is that the turmoil in Libya to which Egypt and the UAE are reacting followed directly from regime change in which Western intervention was instrumental. The United States played less of a leading role in that intervention than some other Western states did, and according to the Pottery Barn rule it does not own the resulting wreckage by itself. But that background is worth remembering.

Second, the airstrikes are a reminder that if forceful things are to be done in the Middle East, the United States doesn’t necessarily have to be the one to do them. That principle applies to more constructive uses of force than hitting the Libyan militias. The UAE has a pretty good air force; maybe next time it can use it for more worthwhile purposes.

Third, the episode is a demonstration that even partners or allies are apt to be moved to action not to protect interests they share with us but to pursue objectives we do not share. Both Egypt and the UAE have reasons related to their own domestic politics and shaky legitimacy for taking sides in the Libyan internal war against the Islamists.

The United States, by contrast, has no good reason to weigh in on one side or the other in that war. If friends and allies of ours get impatient with us for not doing more on behalf of goals that are important to them but not to us, tough.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Libya’s ‘Regime Change’ Chaos

  1. Abe
    September 1, 2014 at 12:33

    “Given the affront genocide represents to America’s most cherished values and to its interests…”

  2. Abe
    September 1, 2014 at 12:10

    The UN Ambassador from Hell:
    Samantha Power, the voice behind Obama’s Libya/Syria/Ukraine actions, is a humanitarian hawk and an Israel apologist (“There’s no genocide to see here. Move along.”).

  3. MrK
    August 30, 2014 at 16:52

    ” Richard Perle & his Jewish neocons designed a Project to protect Israel for Netanyahu and the US military has proceeded to carry it out almost magnificently . ”

    More than protecting Israel, they are paving the way for a Greater Israel, from the Nile to the Euphrates. That is their goal.

    Check out the Yinon Plan.

    They have destroyed Iraq, are trying to destroy Syria through ISIS, they destroyed Libya, partitioned Sudan (‘South Sudan’ after years of propaganda) and Ethiopia (Eritrea, which is Ethiopia’s coastline).

    It is all about oil, and whose oil will make it to market in the EU – Saudi Arabia’s, or Iran’s and Russia’s.

    The Yinon plan is in fact an old British colonial plan, and the bank that financed key elements of the colonial enterprise, including the British government’s purchase of the Suez Canal under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, was Rothschild Bank through Lionel de Rothschild.

  4. Hillary
    August 30, 2014 at 10:43

    Richard Perle & his Jewish neocons designed a Project to protect Israel for Netanyahu and the US military has proceeded to carry it out almost magnificently .
    neocons suggested that to get the US population “on board” a Pearl Harbor event might be essential and then somehow 9/11 ideally provided the necessary stimulus .
    Libya, in 1951 officially the poorest country in the world, under Gaddafi attained the highest standard of living in Africa.
    Of course the majority of the population is worse off today than they ever were under Gaddafi is a fact that is actively suppressed.
    Remember the U.S. Navy fired “Cluster Bombs” into Libya to help the revolution desired by the PNAC mainly Jewish Cabal that seems to run the US.

  5. Abe
    August 30, 2014 at 03:10

    Libya’s Destruction a Warning to Egypt, Syria, & Ukraine

    The same narratives, verbatim, crafted by Western policy think tanks and media spin doctors for Libya are now being reused in Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine. The very same non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are being used to fund, equip, and otherwise support opposition groups in each respective country. Terms such as “democracy,” “progress,” “freedom,” and fighting against “dictatorship” are familiar themes. The protests were and are each accompanied by heavily armed militants also fully backed by the West.

  6. Eric Clyne
    August 29, 2014 at 10:55

    Or US knew and this is a way of shifting public perception slowly towards Arab moderates making war upon Arab extremists. It is also a way of shaking a finger at Qatar to stop being naughty.

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