Gadhafi's ghost still haunts US policymakers

Gadhafi's ghost still haunts US policymakers
© Getty Images

Eight years ago today, a fleeing convoy carrying Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was attacked by an American Reaper drone and two French jets. Emerging from the wreckage, Gadhafi was seized by U.S.- and NATO-supported rebels, beaten and executed. In Washington, bipartisan policymakers celebrated the culmination of U.S.-led regime change that protected human rights and advanced democracy. How wrong they were!

It is widely recognized today that the “new” Libya quickly succumbed to the rule of lawless militias and descended into a new civil war and refugee crisis that endure today. But few appreciate the damage U.S. intervention did to more substantial U.S. national interests: resisting Islamic extremism, managing the complex relationship with nuclear-armed Russia and furthering nuclear non-proliferation in Iran and North Korea.  

If Gadhafi’s specter is abroad this Halloween, you may hear it chuckling darkly. The lessons of America’s misadventure in regime change in Libya need to be applied to today’s policies in places such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea.


Officially, 12,000 to 30,000 Libyans perished during NATO’s decisive intervention in the conflict. Many thousands more Libyans and refugees have died since from militia violence, renewed civil war and — with the breakdown of coastal immigration controls — drownings on the sea route to Europe. American and other Western policymakers bear significant responsibility for these outcomes. Paying little attention to Libyan political reality and historical experience, they expected a fledgling rebel leadership with tenuous control over decentralized fighters to govern a country that was only 60 years old, with weak national institutions, no history of free elections, strong regional and tribal tensions and a longstanding Islamist movement.

It was also awash with Gadhafi’s weapons. Following the NATO intervention and the ensuing chaos, many of those arms, carried by defeated ethnic fighters and Islamic extremists, exited to North and West Africa and the Middle East, strengthening jihadist groups in those regions. Two groups rapidly took over half of Mali, a pioneering democratic state in Africa. French, African and U.N. forces continue to battle jihadists there today.

Perhaps the most harmful effect of the Libyan intervention was to rupture the fragile network of American-Russian cooperation established by the Obama administration’s "Reset" policy. Washington and Moscow worked together to counter international terrorism in Afghanistan, lower the risk of catastrophic war through the New START Treaty for mutual reduction of strategic nuclear weapons (which expires in 2021), and foster nuclear weapons non-proliferation through U.N. sanctions against Iran and North Korea and negotiation of the international accord to prevent an Iranian “breakout.” (At the same time, the U.S. kept up its strong criticism of Russia’s rising authoritarianism.)

But the U.S. broke President Obama’s personal assurance to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that U.N.-authorized intervention in Libya would protect civilians threatened with attack, not effect regime change that Russia (rightly) feared would unleash chaos and Islamic extremism. Medvedev, who refrained from vetoing the U.N. resolution, was upset by this “betrayal.” In response, Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution threatening the Syrian government with economic and diplomatic sanctions (but not military force) for violently repressing civilian demonstrators. 

The messy dissolution of the international consensus on Libya set the table for a proxy war in Syria, pitting the U.S. and its Arab allies against Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinHillicon Valley: House panel says Intelligence Community not equipped to address Chinese threats | House approves bill to send cyber resources to state, local governments Celebs share deepfake video of Kim Jong Un warning democracy is at risk Comey defends FBI Russia probe from GOP criticism MORE observed, in April 2014, “You know, it’s not that [the Reset] has ended now over [Russia’s annexation of] Crimea. I think it ended earlier, right after the events in Libya.” U.S. regime change in Libya and the proxy war in Syria put the Reset on life support; Russian aggression in Ukraine and interference in the 2016 American elections killed it.


U.S. policymakers not only failed to anticipate Russia’s reaction to the NATO campaign, they also underestimated its impact on their nuclear non-proliferation goals. Gadhafi had sacrificed his fledgling nuclear weapons program for the resumption of Western diplomatic and economic engagement. Suddenly NATO overturned his regime. Officials in Iran and North Korea explicitly drew the obvious lesson that wholly abandoning their nuclear efforts could lead to Western-sponsored overthrow of their governments. Later, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump signs bill averting shutdown after brief funding lapse Privacy, civil rights groups demand transparency from Amazon on election data breaches Facebook takes down Trump campaign ads tying refugees to coronavirus MORE’s former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonJudge appears skeptical of Bolton's defense of publishing book without White House approval Maximum pressure is keeping US troops in Iraq and Syria Woodward book trails Bolton, Mary Trump in first-week sales MORE, pushing North Korea to denuclearize, was harshly criticized for his impolitic reference to “the Libyan model.” Yet he was raising a red flag of which North Korea was already fully aware. 

This ghost story contains severe cautions for policymakers contemplating military action or harsh economic measures to displace regimes. Moral and political righteousness is not enough. Know your target country’s history and political realities better than Obama’s best and brightest knew Libya. Most of all, expand your calculus to comprehend the broad array of American interests you might endanger.

Stephen R. Weissman is a former staff director of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, a former senior governance adviser on Africa for USAID, and the author of “A Culture of Deference: Congress's Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy.