Contextualizing the event
In 2011, after a civil war that had been raging for months, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya was killed. The death of Gaddafi has been a subject of much debate over the years, but there has been one consistent answer—President Obama ordered the use of air-power to take out Gaddafi. With the toppling of Gaddafi, rebellions across the Arab world erupted into full-fledged revolutions. But what was the role of President Obama’s air-power in Libya’s revolution and was it a decisive factor?
In the months leading up to the Arab Spring, vast swathes of the Middle East and North African were in a turmoil. Gaddafi, who had been in power for more than four decades, had become aware of the momentum that anti-government protests were beginning to take in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain. To quell the potential of a revolution in Libya, Gaddafi resorted to brutal tactics, according to reports from human-rights organizations, ordering the bombing of civilian targets and the widespread use of artillery to crush opposition movements.
In response to Gaddafi’s worsening crackdown, President Obama ordered a military intervention, which included air-power, to support the Libyan rebels. The intervention was sanctioned by the UN and it had the backing of the majority of NATO member states. In the weeks that followed, the US oversaw airstrikes that targeted Gaddafi’s forces, allowing the rebels on the ground to gain an edge over their opponents and eventually seize control of the capital, Tripoli, leading to Gaddafi’s eventual overthrow.
Understanding The Political Landscape
The US invasion in Libya has been regarded by some as a strategic success for President Obama. According to the Los Angeles Times, Gaddafi’s defeat was seen as a “triumph for Obama’s strategy of relying on air power, rather than boots on the ground”, and it was the key turning point for the Arab Spring, inspiring mass uprisings throughout the Middle East.
However, some analysts have argued that the US deployment of airpower was unnecessary, as the majority of the fighting on the ground was being led by the rebels. According to a study by the International Crisis Group, the no-fly zone imposed on Libya by NATO was largely ineffective, and the US deployment of airpower was more symbolic than operational—it provided a psychological boost to the rebellion and not a strategic advantage. The US deploy of airpower has been viewed by some as a politically motivated move, meant to stifle any potential chaos that could ensue if Gaddafi’s regime didn’t fall and with it, any potential influence Libya could have had on other countries in the Arab Spring.
Influence of the US Intervention
Despite arguments to the contrary, no-one can deny the fact that President Obama’s intervention made a significant contribution to the wave of uprisings that followed while sparing the country and its people additional bloodshed. According to Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, the US intervention was “a model for how to intervene without ground forces” and had arguably prevented a humanitarian catastrophe as months of bloodshed could have been avoided.
The US intervention in Libya was also seen as an attempt to restore order to a region that was becoming increasingly volatile. The US believed that by toppling Gaddafi they could prevent further instability, while simultaneously providing the Libyan people with a chance to start afresh and create a functionary democracy. According to Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “The humanitarian impulse (was) genuine, as were the geopolitical considerations”.
Effect of the Intervention on the Region
The toppling of Gaddafi made a lasting impression on the Middle East and other Arab countries, with many believing that if Gaddafi could be successfully overthrown, then the same could be done in their own countries. According to Alexander Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, “Gaddafi was held up as an example of what could be achieved, even against forceful leadership,” and this is a position that was widely shared by many of the protestors that filled the streets of Cairo, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria hoping to emulate the same result in their respective countries.
In the wake of Gaddafi’s overthrow, the US and the international community have been eager to assist Libya in rebuilding its broken political and social fabrics. In 2017, the US had invested almost $1 billion in funding to help Libyans rebuild their country. But, six years on, it is clear that Libya is still far away from achieving stability, a task that will require both patience and an immense commitment from the international community.
What Does the Future Hold?
As Libya continues to struggle with the aftermath of Gaddafi’s overthrow, it is unclear what lies ahead for the country. Over the course of his rule, Gaddafi accumulated immense wealth, much of which he is said to have stashed away in foreign accounts, and upon his death the whereabouts of this wealth has thus far remained unknown. Furthermore, analysts have expressed concern that by not finding a permanent solution for Libya’s current power vacuum, the country will remain volatile for years to come, and become a haven for terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
The US intervention in Libya has been widely seen as a positive step in the right direction, but there is still much to be done if Libya is to be stabilized. US and EU diplomats have expressed hope that by working together they can bring an end to the chaos, and in recent months they have proposed plans to rebuild the country and restore political stability. But with the situation in Libya becoming increasingly precarious, the international community will have to remain vigilant in order to prevent a relapse into violence.
The Impact on the Economy
The economic impact of the US intervention in Libya has been far reaching. In the wake of civil war, oil production in Libya has been sporadic at best, and this has had a major effect on the global economy. Libya is one of the world’s largest oil exporters, and the sharp drop in production due to the conflict has been felt around the world. According to analysts, the conflict has caused oil prices to spike and the cost of fuel to rise, making an already difficult economic situation in the Middle East worse.
The conflict has also had an effect on Libya’s infrastructure, with roads, bridges, and other vital pieces of infrastructure being damaged or destroyed by the fighting. This has made it difficult for the country to resume normal economic activity and recuperate from the effects of the conflict, and although the government has made attempts to restore essential services and infrastructure, progress has been slow. According to the World Bank, the economic crisis in Libya is ongoing, and the conflict will cause economic hardship for the country for years to come.
The Humanitarian Crisis
The conflict in Libya has had a severe humanitarian impact, with more than two million people displaced due to the fighting. This has led to an immense strain on the country’s resources, with food, fuel, and medical supplies in limited supply. According to the UNHCR, the majority of those displaced are in need of food, shelter and medical assistance, and with few countries willing to take in refugees, the situation in Libya is increasingly bleak.
In response to the humanitarian crisis, the US and the international community have allocated funds to assist those displaced by the conflict. These funds have been used to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to those in need, and in recent months the international community has worked together to improve access to basic necessities, such as clean water and sanitation. However, with more than two million people still displaced, it is clear that much more needs to be done in order to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the conflict.
The International Response
Since the beginning of the conflict in Libya, the international community has been reluctant to commit to direct military action, instead relying on diplomatic efforts to encourage peace and stability in the country. In recent years, the UN and the US have attempted to broker a peace deal between Libya’s warring factions, but progress has been slow. According to analysts, the US and the international community must be willing to take on a more direct role if the conflict is to be brought to an end, and until a political solution is found, the suffering of millions of Libyans will continue.
US diplomats have argued that they will not become directly involved in the conflict, instead preferring to focus on humanitarian efforts to provide relief to those affected. US officials have also argued that a political solution must be found to the health and welfare of people living in Libya, a task that experts have described as daunting. With the international community unable to agree upon a plan of action, the conflict in Libya is likely to continue for some time to come.