10 Years Ago, NATO Intervened in Libya — And Created a Complete Disaster

Ten years ago, NATO forces intervened in Libya’s civil war with promises to liberate the country. The disaster they left behind offers a lesson on why imperialist wars must be resisted.

A Royal Air Force warplane shortly before entering Libyan airspace in April 2011. (Gert Kromhout/Stocktrek via Getty)

In 2016, a report found that the intervention of British, French, and American armed forces into Libya in March 2011 was “not informed by accurate intelligence.”

It went on to say that the action, which was ostensibly to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s government, had “drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change,” the result of which was “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and intertribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of [weapons] across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.”

This summary of the war in Libya, which began ten years ago, was not from an antiwar organization or one of the fifteen UK MPs who opposed the war. These are the words the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, in a document entitled “Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options.”

And despite this strong judgement from a cross-party parliamentary committee, the Libyan catastrophe is once again being cited as a positive example of liberal interventionism, as the political establishment in London and Washington continues to attempt to rehabilitate the ideas that were so discredited after the 2003 war in Iraq.

These attempts are part of the current discussions around Britain’s place in the world, and dovetail with elements of Boris Johnson’s defense and security review outlined this week — which includes a commitment to greater military spending and an expansion of Britain’s nuclear arsenal.

Additionally, as the Stop the War Coalition has pointed out, this relates to the vital discussion taking place right now in the Labour Party and the broader labor movement on what our international outlook and foreign policy should be.

The Open Labour grouping, for example, is among those arguing that the Left needs to break from an “anachronistic preoccupation with Iraq.” In this discourse — which is essentially about rehabilitating imperialist conflict — it is often argued that the war in Libya was very different to the 2003 war in Iraq.

This isn’t a new perspective. At the time of the war in Libya, the writer Vijay Prashad noted that “cynics in Washington and Paris [and London] used Libya as a way to wash off the stain of Bush’s Iraqi adventure.” Any serious analysis of both wars flags up far more similarities than differences.

One obvious common factor is that despite the objections of those pursuing the wars at the time, both were clearly wars by external powers planning to enforce regime change on their chosen targets. A second factor is that the control of oil and natural resources was a central motivation.

On the day Tripoli fell, the New York Times’ headline — “The Scramble for Access to Libya’s Oil Wealth Begins” — was telling. Libya’s vast oil reserves, long prized by the West for being the largest in Africa and incredibly close to Europe, were now open to business for foreign investors.

And as is the case with all imperial interventions, the attempt to get profits flowing for multinational corporations comes long before any ideas of reconstruction, such as essential infrastructural projects or ensuring services. Indeed, it was even alleged by sources on the ground in 2012 that some NATO powers and related companies were paying nothing at all for the oil they were taking.

The geopolitics of the situation were also paramount in both invasions. Anglo-American bids to control the Middle East are nothing new, and there has been a new scramble for Africa in recent decades. But as Seumas Milne has argued, the Libyan intervention was also about poisoning the Arab Spring taking place at that time, and — in the case of France specifically — reasserting a fading imperial strength in North Africa.

Finally, and importantly, the ways in which both wars were carried out led to great damage to the victim countries. Like Iraq, Libya saw a huge number of civilian deaths. In over twenty thousand massive “shock and awe” aerial bombardments, major cities and civilian infrastructure were routinely targeted. A December 2011 New York Times report warned of an “unrecognized toll” of the conflict — the “scores of civilian casualties that [NATO] has long refused to acknowledge or investigate.”

Human Rights Watch said that hundreds of people were killed in the bombing of Sirte alone, condemning NATO for not investigating civilian deaths from airstrikes. Amnesty International, meanwhile, warned of NATO turning a blind eye to African migrants, with black Libyans being subject to a relentless campaign of mass detention, lynchings, and other atrocities.

As Boris Johnson is seemingly working to reassert an imperial doggedness into British politics, it is worth pointing out that both wars were deeply unpopular here in Britain — but the government of the day went ahead with them anyway.

This is something we in the labor movement have a duty to resist. We cannot allow the crimes of these illegal wars for oil and plunder to be forgotten, and must be as ready as ever to mobilize against future repetitions.

Ignoring this imperial past is a license for its future reproduction: to avoid other Libyas, our job is to advocate fearlessly for a socialist, antiwar internationalism, based on the values of peace, self-determination, and justice.