Tuesday, April 05, 2016

We have no idea what Libya would have been like if NATO had not intervened

I think Shadi Hamid's argument is pretty weak. Sure, it's fun to #slatepitch, and with the current mess in Libya, the 2011 NATO intervention is ripe for an alternative spin.

While I agree with Hamid that to assess whether the Libyan intervention was a success, we should not compare Libya today to an ideal, and that instead "we should compare Libya today to what Libya would have looked like if he hadn't intervened." But how do we know what that would look like? We really have no idea.

It is worth pointing out that Libya was already descending into civil war before NATO intervened. A lot of people who criticize the decision to intervene in Libya do seem to forget or miss that fact. In that sense, the Libyan intervention was not like the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The U.S. brought war to Iraq, but that is not the case with NATO's bombing operation in Libya. Libya had already descended into violence without the U.S. or its allies help.

But that doesn't mean that Libya would be just as bad today without NATO's intervention. The intervention clearly changed the dynamic of the already existing war. Maybe the rebels would have ultimately overthrown Qadhafi without the backing of American bombers, or maybe not. But I think it's clear that the bombing made Qadhafi's overthrow and death happen sooner than it would have without outside assistance.

But beyond that, I really have no idea what would have happened in Libya. Counterfactuals are hard. Without the NATO bombing maybe Libya would still be in the midst of a civil war like Syria's. Or maybe not. Maybe Qadhafi would have been able to successfully put down the rebellion, recapture Banghazi (which fell into rebel hands in February 2011, roughly one month before the NATO intervention) and regain control of the entire country. Or maybe not. I don't know which scenario is right, and neither does anyone else.

Hamid's argument that the country would have been worse off without the NATO intervention is just an argument. For him to assume his story to be true, Hamid is essentially doing what he criticizes. Like those who wrongly compare the current state of Libya to some imagined ideal of what it would be like without the 2011 intervention, Hamid is comparing the current state of Libya to his imagined dystopia of what Libya without intervention might have been.