Eight years ago today, a fleeing convoy carrying Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was attacked by an American Reaper drone and two French jets. Emerging from the wreckage, Gadhafi was seized by U.S.- and NATO-supported rebels, beaten and executed. In Washington, bipartisan policymakers celebrated the culmination of U.S.-led regime change that protected human rights and advanced democracy. How wrong they were!
It is widely recognized today that the “new” Libya quickly succumbed to the rule of lawless militias and descended into a new civil war and refugee crisis that endure today. But few appreciate the damage U.S. intervention did to more substantial U.S. national interests: resisting Islamic extremism, managing the complex relationship with nuclear-armed Russia and furthering nuclear non-proliferation in Iran and North Korea.
If Gadhafi’s specter is abroad this Halloween, you may hear it chuckling darkly. The lessons of America’s misadventure in regime change in Libya need to be applied to today’s policies in places such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea.
Officially, 12,000 to 30,000 Libyans perished during NATO’s decisive intervention in the conflict. Many thousands more Libyans and refugees have died since from militia violence, renewed civil war and — with the breakdown of coastal immigration controls — drownings on the sea route to Europe. American and other Western policymakers bear significant responsibility for these outcomes. Paying little attention to Libyan political reality and historical experience, they expected a fledgling rebel leadership with tenuous control over decentralized fighters to govern a country that was only 60 years old, with weak national institutions, no history of free elections, strong regional and tribal tensions and a longstanding Islamist movement.