The USA's mistake was 'not to plan for the day after'

When President Barack Obama leaves office, he will be remembered as one of the most successful presidents in America’s history. Among his achievements would be leading the country to bounce back from one of the worst financial crisis, healthcare reform through the Affordable Care Act and promoting major liberal policies like gay rights. In the international scene, he’s ensured an overdue rapprochement with Cuba and joined the rest of the developed world in striking a major nuclear deal with Iran.

​Violently toppling the Gaddafi regime was not "the right thing to do"

However, like Obama himself admitted, arguably his greatest foreign policy failure was in Libya. When asked by Fox News‘ Chris Wallace what his “worst mistake” was as president, Obama said it was “failing to plan for the day after” the ouster of the Libyan leader. He, however, defended the US-NATO-led Libyan invasion as the “right thing to do.”

​African thinkers and leaders must challenge the dominant narrative

Obama is not unique in stating that using Western military might to topple Ghaddafi was right. His view is held by several Western leaders and liberal scholars. Former NATO Secretary-General and Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who also echoed this view, struggled to defend NATO’s role during the Libyan uprising in an interview with Al Jazeera. Rasmussen claimed NATO was not “part of” toppling Ghaddafi. He struggled to deny evidence that NATO provided military support to rebels and clearly had an agenda to topple the Libyan leader. This repeated claim by Western leaders that what turned out as violently toppling the Gaddafi regime was the “right thing to do” is one African leaders and thinkers must ensure does not become the dominant narrative.

United States and NATO

The mass protests against dictatorship in Libya in 2011 was part of the larger Arab Spring where citizens in their thousands protested against dictatorships in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria. After the Libyan protests began in February, 2011, the killings of protesters by government forces led to the conflict spiralling into a civil war. Under the Responsibility to Protect principle, the UN, in March, authorised a no-fly zone stating that all actions be taken to protect civilians. NATO’s claim, like Obama’s, is that it only went to Libya to enforce the UN mandate. However the UN mandate never included a regime change, a fact the US and its allies always avoid discussing, sticking more to the protecting civilians narrative.

“We knew that 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,” Obama had stated.

If protecting civilian casualty was the major reason for the Western military actions in Libya, then the question to be asked is why similar actions were not carried out when Saudi tanks rolled into Bahrain, killing scores of peaceful protesters who were demanding something similar to the Libyans. Or why a similar military action was not deemed necessary when President Sisi’s Egyptian forces, in the full glare of the world, killed hundreds of peaceful protesters who were simply demanding the reinstatement of a democratically elected government in Egypt. In other words, the U.S. and its allies had more reason to invade Libya than to protect civilians, just as it had more reasons to invade Iraq than the bogus Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) claims.

​Libya today is a hub of weapons and human traffic

The removal of Ghaddafi brought more deaths and instability to not only Libya, but the rest of Africa and indeed Europe. Libya, one of the most affluent and developed African countries, was turned into a fragile state. Thousands more Libyans have been killed since Ghaddafi’s murder than at any point during his dictatorship. In fact, according to the International Crisis Group, 10 times more people were killed in the seven months after the NATO intervention in Libya than before the intervention. Different parts of Libya have since then been ruled by several armed groups, some allied with ISIS, despite the recent efforts of the UN.

In terms of the effect of the invasion on Africa, in the aftermath of the Libyan war, weapons flowed freely from Libya to other rebels and terrorist groups across Africa, including to the Boko Haram in Nigeria. In other words, the instability in Libya played a role in fuelling several other conflicts in countries like Nigeria, Chad, and Mali. Europe has also borne the brunt of the Libyan invasion as the unstable country has become a major hub for illegal and risky shipment of African migrants to Europe via the Mediterranean. Although the problem had been there while Ghaddafi was in power, thousands more died through that risky migration after the dictator’s ouster, while millions more made it through the risky route. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo recently stated how Ghaddafi was working with other African leaders on tackling the African migrants crisis before the West struck in Libya.

However, this article is not to defend Ghaddafi or similar dictators in the Middle East, but to question the motive and purpose of such actions. While the UN and other global organisations should continue to champion human rights and freedom across the world, it must be consistent in applying its principles and use war as only the very last option. As U.S. presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders states in his manifesto, “While force must always be an option, war must be a last resort, not the first option.” For example, while the governments in Bahrain, Egypt, and indeed Nigeria are guilty of massacring hundreds of civilians, violent regime change or war should not be the solution. Effective diplomacy, as well as international sanctions, not on the general populace but on the direct perpetrators of the killings, regime officials, their family and their allies can be implemented until justice is done.

As for Libya, the current UN-backed unity government alongside increasing dialogue among other existing factions in the country may be a way to proceed. Also African countries led by more democratic Nigeria and South Africa must ensure that they no longer play backbencher roles when decisions affecting African countries are being debated. Lastly, Obama and other Western leaders must realise that Libya was a great mistake, not because they refused to plan for Ghaddafi’s aftermath, but because they used military might to illegally carry out a regime change.

Idris Akinbajo, a multiple award winning journalist, is a Masters student at the Graduate School of Communication, University of Amsterdam.

Photography: Surian Soosay, Flickr/Creative Commons, Opposition Commander in Misurata, Lib

This blog was published in the Premius Times Nigeria on May 1, 2016.