Post-Gaddafi Libya

Is NATO prepared for what happens when they win?

My latest for The Atlantic, “Scant Planning for Post-Qaddafi Libya,” has been posted. It rather defies excerpting, but here’s a taste:

If NATO has a plan for achieving victory in Libya, it has been well disguised. Regardless, the world’s most powerful military alliance will surely somehow, some day prevail over a besieged dictator with little support. But is NATO prepared for what happens when they win?

Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took to Twitter last week to proclaim, “Once political settlement is reached, I don’t expect NATO to play leading role” and “Future to be shaped by Libyan people. NATO will support international efforts if requested and needed.”


The parallels with Iraq are eerie. In his seminal work on that conflict, Fiasco, Thomas Ricks quotes Major Isaiah Wilson, the official Army historian of the spring 2003 invasion and later strategic planner in Iraq saying that there was “no single plan as of 1 May 2004 that described an executable approach to achieving the stated strategic endstate for war.” Joint Staff officer Gregory Gardner explained why: “Politically, we’d made a decision that we’d turn it over to the Iraqis in June” 2003. Additionally, an Army War College study found, what little planning there was for post-conflict stabilization was predicated on the unfounded assumption that “the international community would pick up the slack.”


Putting a different face on the post-conflict stabilization efforts would be ideal, then, even if Western nations have to pay for it. The obvious candidates are the United Nations and the African Union, both of which have extensive experience in peacekeeping missions and would come without imperialist baggage.

Peacekeeping, of course, requires that there be a peace to keep. As the ongoing UN missions in Liberia and Ivory Coast demonstrate, blue helmets are not a panacea. If the mere presence of trained outside security forces is insufficient to prevent the outbreak of sectarian fighting, the peacekeepers then get caught in the crossfire. If they choose sides and shift into kinetic operations — for which they tend to be ill-equipped to begin with — they can often lose their legitimacy.

In theory, this would all have been worked out before NATO intervened, thus taking ownership of the outcome. And it’s possible that someone, somewhere planned all this out. But, if they did, they’ve been awfully quiet about it.

More at the link.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Middle East, World Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rob in CT says:

    “Is NATO prepared for what happens when they win?”

    No more than we were prepared for post-Saddam Iraq, I imagine. My hope is that in this particular instance, we can simply walk away, claiming to have done what we set out to do, and wash our hands of it. Not pretty, but better than the alternative (another round of nationbuilding).

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    @Rob in CT: This intervention was about resources, not protecting civilians whom we now know weren’t in danger. If the successor government isn’t malleable enough for Western purposes we’ll be right back there “defindin’ freedum’.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    The short answer is “No”. The best case scenario is that the Libyan rebels are liberalizers and they will implement a better, more just regime in Libya. The worst case is that they are violent, radical Islamists just as corrupt and oppressive as Qaddafi. Which is it? Beats me. I don’t think the U. S. State Department knows a great deal better than I do.

  4. it will probably be a fascist dictatorship like saudi arabia, the united arab emirates, and all the other u.s. pupet states. however, i am not sure the u.s will win. support for qadafi is strong in libya, and they are not going to just surrender. they;ve made it clear they do NOT want foreign occupation

  5. michael reynolds says:

    I’m not sure peace-keeping will be required. Who kept the peace after Cornwallis surrendered? Who kept the peace in Israel after 1948?

    The Libyan rebels seem to have a functioning government. They have resources. I think they’ll say, “Thanks for the air power, we’ll see you around.”

  6. Wayne says:

    Re ““Thanks for the air power, we’ll see you around.”

    I hope so but I doubt it. More likely they will have several factions striving for power. The result will likely be a good deal of violence between those factions. We can hope for the best but not being prepare for something worst is irresponsible.

  7. Ron Beasley says:

    Since when has NATO(The US) every thought things out enough to prepare for the consequences? Shot first – ask questions later!

  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Wayne: A factional fight in Libya is not necessarily our problem. We intervened ostensibly to avert a human rights disaster, but in reality to knock off an unstable tyrant who had killed Americans. There’s no reason to assume afaction fight — if one occurs — will involve us. We didn’t adopt Libya, we just bombed Gaddafi.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Victory by air power alone would not free NATO members from the obligations of the “occupying power” under the Geneva Convention. We would still be responsible for security in Libya. “Occupying power” does not mean that you have boots on the ground or that you have authority over the country. It merely means that you’ve removed the country’s government.

    You don’t need to take my word for this. Go lookup the proceedings of the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Naletilic case.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:
    I don’t see that having much effect. If the Libyan government tells us to piss off, what would Geneva have us do? Invade so that we can assume our treaty obligations?

  11. Wayne says:

    What happen to “if you break it you own it”?

    If it does result in factional fighting, we are responsible for it because we help overthrow the government. Can we turn our backs on them and walk away? Yes. We could have done that in Afghanistan and Iraq as well. Maybe we should have. However there are negative consequences in doing so.

    One the “humanity” crisis may get much worse as it often does when a central government is overthrown and factions fight.

    Two we can’t by any means think that the conflict we only involved Libyans. Iran, China and others could come in and back a faction then put a puppet government in.

    Three, if a worst dictator takes power and does horrific actions, the U.S will be blamed.

    Maybe those things are better than us getting even further involved but we should recognize what our choices are and be prepared to take the consequences for our choices. The “well no one knew it was going to happen” will not be a valid excuse.

  12. michael reynolds says:


    What happen to “if you break it you own it”?

    I don’t set much stock in stock phrases.

    In any event I’m not sure why knocking off a terror–sponsoring thug is “breaking” anything. Gaddafi was never a legitimate ruler by any standard. He did not govern by the consent of his people, he dominated by force. Same as Saddam. If we were doing this to a freely-elected government it would be a different matter. (And we may conceivably face that possibility in Iran some day. God forbid.) But Gaddafi is no more the legitimate government of Libya than I am.

    He may be replaced by another thug. That often happens. But it also often happens that a thug, seeing what happened to his predecessor, finds a more moderate path. If not, and if the next government of Libya blows airliners out of the sky and props up fellow tyrants and and threatens its own people, well, I guess we’ll figure out how to respond to them.

    The fallacy that concerns me in all this is the desire for certainty. There is no certainty. There never has been, there never will be. Each day we try our hardest and do our best and we never, ever know what effect our efforts will have down the road. In a half hour I’m driving over to the gym. Will I get stronger? Or will I stroke out? Or will I run over a pedestrian? Or will I escape the earthquake destruction of my home by mere seconds?

    Life is uncertainty. That’s not to say we don’t play the odds and try our best to achieve a desired result. But we’re still throwing the dice, and inaction in Libya would itself have been an action subject to those same laws of unintended consequences.In other words, both action and inaction could yield terrible results. You can’t step away from this craps table, you play whether you like it or not.

  13. Wayne says:

    So just to be clear, you wouldn’t have any problem walking away from Iraq after we topple Saddam or Afghanistan after we topple their government?

    The Middle East has a long history of the West helping overthrow a government\dictator only to have it replace by another bad government\dictator. I understand trying to avoid repeating the same mistakes. I understand walking away hoping for the best. However if you support the later don’t give me the sorry B.S. whine of “well, we supported Saddam at one time”, “Bush one should have taken Saddam out the first time” or any junk like that.

    I can respect someone supporting walking away from such situations. However I can’t respect them whining about the consequence when we do.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    So just to be clear, you wouldn’t have any problem walking away from Iraq after we topple Saddam or Afghanistan after we topple their government?

    To be clear, that’s not what I supported at the time. But in theory do I think there are situations where we can topple a government and walk away? Yes.

    I have a strong bias in favor of moral behavior in foreign policy. But I have a stronger bias in favor of achieving our policy goals.

  15. Ben Wolf says:

    @michael reynolds: But our policy goal is to recruit new clients. Some have suggested if all we want is the oil we could simply sign a deal with Ghaddafi, but to think that possible is to fundamentally misconstrue U.S. objectives in the region.

    Yes, we could have put an agreement on the table for either Saddam or Ghaddafi, and the value of those agreements would have become apparent about thirty seconds after they signed them in crayon. Ghaddafi, like Saddam Hussein is too unreliable for the U.S. govenment; in fact the two of them have a proven record of breaking every treaty they sign. Our government wants a dependable and subservient regime in each of these countries.
    This is, for example, why our government was working behind the scenes to ensure control of Egypt was transferred to a CIA backed operative while at the same time calling for Mubarak to go in the interests of self-determination by the Egyptian people. The true goal was to prevent Egyptians from embracing real democracy because a democratic government would be by its nature unpredictable and uncontrollable.