Learning From Libya: The Lessons of U.S. Intervention

In the four years since the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, the nation’s six million inhabitants have endured deteriorating security and well-being, with warring factions fragmenting the country and crippling Libya’s economy. Ultimately, this period of turmoil has prompted more than 400,000 Libyans to flee their homes.

Against this backdrop, the Charles Koch Institute hosted a panel earlier this week, asking a simple, yet complex, question: What are the lessons of Libya? Moderated by the Institute’s Will Ruger, the panel featured three dynamic voices from the policy field. Speaking before a large crowd, the panelists discussed whether the U.S. should have intervened in Libya, and how the consequences of that action in 2011 should shape American foreign policy in the coming years.

Alan Kuperman, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, began the evening with pointed remarks, stating that with his speech he hoped to answer the question, “Why did we do something so stupid?” Kuperman argued that a result of U.S. intervention in Libya, our foreign policy transformed an ally against terrorism into a nation plagued with terrorism. “Libya may have had its faults before the U.S. intervened, but it at least had order. Today, it doesn’t,” Kuperman contended.

Christopher Chivvis, an associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, argued that although the outcome of Libyan intervention had negative consequences, policy decisions should also be evaluated from the historical context in which they arise. “It’s not as if there’s a simple formula for when or when not to intervene. It’s more about just answering yes or no,” Chivvis told the audience.

Fellow panelist Ivan Eland, director of the Center for Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, also appeared skeptical of the U.S. decision to intervene. In response to a question on whether the U.S. had a moral responsibility to remain in Libya following the failures of its initial intervention, Eland answered succinctly: “You’re assuming we can fix the policy we’ve broken.”

The panel drew to a close with a Q&A session, in which audience members wondered how the lessons of Libya can apply to future foreign policy decisions. Tasked with the question of how to distinguish what an effective intervention would look like, as opposed to the actions toward Libya, Kuperman provided a clear answer: “A deft use of diplomacy, a minimum amount of military force, and being clear to not reward the rebels.”

Watch the full panel below:

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