Was There Really An Imminent Humanitarian Crisis In Libya?

President Obama says he acted in Libya to avert an imminent genocide, but there's no evidence that any such thing was about to occur.

Last Monday in his speech to the nation, President Obama justified the US/UN/NATO intervention in Libya as necessary to prevent an imminent humanitarian crisis:

Ten days ago, having tried to end the violence without using force, the international community offered Gaddafi a final chance to stop his campaign of killing, or face the consequences.  Rather than stand down, his forces continued their advance, bearing down on the city of Benghazi, home to nearly 700,000 men, women and children who sought their freedom from fear.

At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice.  Gaddafi declared he would show “no mercy” to his own people.  He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment.  In the past, we have seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day.  Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city.  We knew that if we wanted — if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

It was not in our national interest to let that happen.  I refused to let that happen.  And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.

This threat of an imminent humanitarian disaster in Benghazi was the justification for UNSCR 1973 and has also been cited by some Obama supporters as justification for not consulting with Congress prior to taking military action. The only problem is that there is no evidence to suggest that it was ever true:

Alan Kuperman, an associate professor at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, is among those unconvinced by Obama’s case. “Gadhafi,” he told me, “did not massacre civilians in any of the other big cities he captured — Zawiya, Misrata, Ajdabiya — which together have a population equal to Benghazi. Yes, civilians were killed in a typical, ham-handed, Third World counterinsurgency. But civilians were not targeted for massacre as in Rwanda, Darfur, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia, or even Kosovo after NATO intervention.”

The rebels, however, knew that inflating their peril was their best hope for getting outside help. So, Kuperman says, they concocted the specter of genocide — and Obama believed it, or at least used it to justify intervention.

Another skeptic is Paul Miller, an assistant professor at National Defense University who served on the National Security Council under Bush and Obama. “The Rwandan genocide was targeted against an entire, clearly defined ethnic group,” he wrote on the Foreign Policy website. “The Libyan civil war is between a tyrant and his cronies on one side, and a collection of tribes, movements, and ideologists (including Islamists) on the other. …The first is murder, the second is war.”

When I contacted Miller, he discounted the talk of vast slaughter. “Benghazi is the second-largest city in the country and he needs the city and its people to continue functioning and producing goods for his impoverished country,” he said.

Maybe these analysts are mistaken, but the administration has offered little in the way of rebuttal. Where Bush sent Colin Powell to the United Nations to make the case against Saddam Hussein, Obama has treated the evidence about Gadhafi as too obvious to dispute.

I emailed the White House press office setimes asking for concrete evidence of the danger, based on any information the administration may have. But a spokesman declined to comment.

As the author points out, when George W. Bush was arguing for military action against Iraq he at least had intelligence, albeit faulty intelligence, indicating that Iraq did still possessed WMDs. In fact, this was a belief that was shared by every major intelligence service in the world at the time. It was, however, faulty intelligence, largely because nobody had reliable assets on the ground and Saddam Hussein was, for his own reasons, engaging in what clearly seems in retrospect to have been a disinformation campaign designed to make the world, and especially Iran, think he still had WMDs.

All Obama had with regard to Libya was a theory about what might happen in a war we didn’t understand in a country we didn’t understand. Much like the Bush Administration took the dubious intelligence about Iraq and combined it with the irrational fears of Saddam Hussein striking Europe and the United States with chemical weapons-laden missiles he didn’t have, President Obama related on incomplete information about what was actually going on in Libya, much of which was coming from rebels who had their own motivations for getting the West involved in the war.

Once again, then, it seems we’ve gotten involved in a conflict in a Muslim nation based, if not on lies, then at least on wild exaggerations of what our President thinks is the truth. Hope and Change!


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Genocide? He keeps using that word but I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

  2. rodney dill says:

    Of course there was. The rebels would’ve been slaughtered in their attacks against Ghaddafi, if we* had not provided them air support.

    (* – The big ‘we’, meaning NATO, UN, et. al)

  3. Rodney,

    Perhaps but as James pointed out in a post last week, that’s just evidence of war, not genocide against civilians

  4. rodney dill says:

    You failed to recognize my irony.

  5. Did Obama say “genocide?” If so, it is not in the excerpt above.

    re: No such thing happened in Zawiya, Misrata, Ajdabiya. Gaddafistas only actually occupied Zawiya, and indeed there are reports of hundreds or thousands of young men being dragged away, never to be heard from. Yes, a “massacre.” G. has not captured Misrata, so he hasn’t had the chance. And, his armored forces occupied the ring road on the west side of Ajdabiya, cutting it off as they pressed on towards Benghazi. Again, no chance for a massacre.

    As for the argument, “It would not be in his rational self-interest to massacre in Benghazi,” that’s laughable.

  6. acptulsa says:

    The fact that the president lied isn’t the only problem. Dubya lied his tail off to get us into the previous two wars, blatantly saying that Iraq had yellowcake uranium and getting all the yellow journalists to parrot him, and that Al Qaeda would hang around Afghanistan long enough for us to catch them there. But at least he had just enough respect for the Constitution (damned little, but just enough) to go up The Hill and lie his tail off.

    And Obama? Maybe a hurried and mislabeled ‘unanimous consent’ declaration after the fact–from only one half (the smaller half) of the Congress meets the Constitutional requirement that Congress declare the wars? Or was there an ‘imminent threat’ to the U.S., as the War Powers Act requires? Or does he just have trouble lying on the House floor?

    God save us from self-appointed ‘Constitutional Scholars’…

  7. rodney dill says:

    God save us from self-appointed ‘Constitutional Scholars’…

    … and from amateur historians that want to re-write history. Dubya had intelligence information as to what Iraq had. That information was accepted by him, congress, and other countries as correct at the time. It just turned out that the information was bad. That’s not lying.

  8. JKB says:

    Yes, there seems to be an attempt to send history down the rabbit hole. Prior to the Iraq invasion, no country, not even Iraq, was saying Iraq didn’t have WMDs, not even the UN inspectors, who simply argued for more inspection time.

  9. wr says:

    JKB — The inspectors were asking for more time because they hadn’t found anything. They asked for more time to provide evidence of this, and to keep the US from starting a war on phony premises. To enlist them into your cause of whitewashing Bush’s treason is nauseating.

  10. Michael Edwards says:

    If there was a humanitarian crisis, then one still exists. The same rebel-aligned sources that were reporting attrocities prior to coalition intervention continue to do so. Misurata, a city nearly the size of Greensboro has been the subject of “reports” on a daily basis.


    12:40am The west Libya city of Misurata continues to be under heavy bombardment, residents tell Reuters.

    Gaddafi loyalists have attacked shops and homes in the city centre, as the rebels’ hold on the city begins to weaken. A a rebel spokesman called Sami told the news agency:

    They used tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and other projectiles to hit the city today. It was a random and very intense bombardment. We no longer recognise the place. The destruction cannot be described.

    The pro-Gaddafi soldiers who made it inside the city through Tripoli Street are pillaging the place, the shops, even homes, and destroying everything in the process. They are targeting everyone, including civilians’ homes. I don’t know what to say, may Allah help us.

    Al-Jazeera April 2 live blog

  11. Dan says:

    Did President Obama steal his 2012 re-election campaign slogan from a rival? http://t.co/pau3Yqu

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

    … and from amateur historians that want to re-write history. Dubya had intelligence information as to what Iraq had. That information was accepted by him, congress, and other countries as correct at the time. It just turned out that the information was bad. That’s not lying.

    yup and can we please also remember the 17 UN resolutions, the violations, the constant and many years of our jets being targeted, and the last chance old Saddam had to come clean?

  13. JKB says:

    wr, the inspectors never came out with a definitive determination that Saddam did not have WMDs. As such, their need to continue inspections in the absence of finding evidence was an indication of a continued belief that the WMDs existed. I used them simply to point out that the inspectors who had been inspecting for near a decade could not say that the WMDs did not exist.

  14. wr says:

    JKB — Yes, in exactly the same way that I can not say that unicorns do not exist. It is impossible to prove a negative. But the inspectors were urging the US not to invade because they had no sign at all that there was anything there. They never expressed any continued belief that WMDs existed. They were there because they hadn’t finished the job, that’s all.

  15. ponce says:

    Well, Libya doesn’t seem to have hurt Obama in the polls.

    As isn’t that really what’s important?

  16. TG Chicago says:

    As Stephen Sherman indicated, Obama never claimed that there was an imminent genocide in Libya (at least not in the speech linked in this post). He only used that word once in the speech, and that was in general terms:

    There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security -– responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce.

    Mataconis should edit the sub-headline of the post, since — at least based on the information provided here — it is factually inaccurate.

  17. michael reynolds says:

    Some very interesting videos (3 in all) of Libyans inside Tripoli who support the rebels. One woman says she prays for the NATO pilots. A man talks about the indiscriminate, murderous brutality of Gaddafi’s thugs.

    The videos only show a half dozen people willing to go on camera with blurred faces. But if you imagine the risk they are taking, and the difficulty for a journalist in locating even one such person, you can reasonably extrapolate that this is a large percentage of people in the supposedly pro-Gaddafi side.

    It puts the lie to the notion that this is simple tribalism, or that Gaddafi is firmly in charge. Members of his government are defecting, and he’s trying to get the Greeks to intercede.

    Meanwhile, he still hasn’t taken Misurata.

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    Whether there would have been a massacre or not is unknowable and, consequently, not worth stewing about. The questions now are a) how can an outcome that precludes a massacre be crafted? and b) how can American interests be protected?

    I honestly have no idea of how to answer either question. I leave that to those who favored intervention.

  19. Wayne says:

    You can go about anywhere and get half dozen people willing to say about anything including they were abducted by aliens. Claiming to be abducted by aliens will cause hardship someone.

    Does that mean it puts the lie to the notion that many more people have been abducted by aliens? No.

    In most large groups there is decent size % that doesn’t hold the same opinion as majority. What is the majority and minority opinion in Tripoli, I am not sure. Having a half dozen people on video doesn’t prove much of anything. It could be phony media propaganda for all we know. It would be nice if Gaddafi was indeed weak but the evidence given was weak.

  20. michael reynolds says:


    It’s from Al Jazeera, not known to be US propagandists.

    Having done just a little reporting myself I can tell you that getting anyone to give you a useful quote is heavy lifting. Getting people to give you good quote that also puts their lives and the lives of their children in deadly danger is exceedingly heavy lifting.

    Gaddafi’s foreign minister didn’t run away because he was sanguine about the regimes’s future. And his deputy isn’t trying to open a diplomatic door through Greece because he’s confident.

    Time is on the rebels’ side, so long as they don’t lose their nerve.

  21. ponce says:

    “Time is on the rebels’ side, so long as they don’t lose their nerve.”

    Beacuse America’s commitment to fighting their war for them is so rock solid?

  22. steve says:

    “Dubya had intelligence information as to what Iraq had. That information was accepted by him, congress, and other countries as correct at the time.”

    The Germans, Brits and French had significant intel questioning ours. The New American Century people took over the DoD and the executive office. The intelligence services knew what information they wanted presented.


  23. michael reynolds says:

    Beacuse America’s commitment to fighting their war for them is so rock solid?

    No, because of geography, and because the rebels win just by holding on, and because their half of Libya won’t be under sanctions and blockade.

  24. ponce says:

    “No, because of geography, and because the rebels win just by holding on, and because their half of Libya won’t be under sanctions and blockade.”

    Because that worked so well for us in Afghanistan over the past…10 years?

  25. Wiley Stoner says:

    Steve, no they didn’t, If there were any doubt they would not have voted in the affirmative on UN Resolution 1441. For your own edification you could do a little research finding out the statements William Jefferson Clinton had to say about the existance of WMD in Iraq during his Presidency. Pay particular attention to what he said when he signed the 1998 The Iraq Liberation Act. Maybe you will stop trying to insist what you read on DK (the daily KOS) is news.

  26. Wiley Stoner says:

    Reynolds. without arial bombardmand by those who want to assist radical islam in getting a greater hold in the Middle East, the rebels would be hisotry. These guys do not even kinow which direction to point a weapon whien intending to discharge it. Looks to me like they are trying trick shots by having their bullets fall from the heavens upon their intended targets. Kind of like you trained them.

  27. michael reynolds says:


    If I thought you cared anything about the realities of the situation I’d explain. You don’t. So I’ll just say: start with a map.

  28. michael reynolds says:

    Tweet from CNN’s Nic Robertson:

    Sources close to Libyan leadership say Gadhafi’s envoy to Greece, Turkey & Malta testing waters re Saif Gadhafi taking over from his father.

    Not confirmed, obviously. But if confirmed it would kind of tend to support my contention that time is not on Gaddafi’s side.

  29. Jim says:

    This guy is an idiot. He is giving America a black eye and he is the one throwing the punches at us. He is a disgrace to America.