A review of Ian Martin’s “All Necessary Measures? The United Nations and International Intervention in Libya” (Hurst & Company, 2022)

Hillary Clinton was in Tunisia for her first visit as Secretary of State on March 17, 2011, the day the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize all necessary measures to defend civilians in Libya. As the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, I was literally at her elbow as she conferred with the senior staff traveling with her (including Jake Sullivan, now President Joe Biden’s national security advisor) to decide what tactics the United States should adopt in the U.N. Security Council.  

As the day began in Tunis – five hours ahead of New York – it was an open question whether the United States could gather the nine votes necessary to pass a resolution, much less avoid a Russian or Chinese veto. Notwithstanding the sobering prospects for a positive vote, Clinton decided to push on and get countries on the record. If the resolution passed, she reasoned, so much the better, but if not, the world would know who supported the Libyan people and who supported their dictator.

Intensive telephone diplomacy did the trick. Clinton called Sergei Lavrov (then as now the Russian Foreign Minister) from Tunis and persuaded him to abstain on the resolution, explaining that the United States was not seeking to put “boots on the ground.”  Qaddafi buttressed the U.S. diplomatic lobbying effort by warning the citizens of Benghazi in advance of the U.N. Security Council vote that “we are coming tonight….we will find you in your closets.”

The situations in Libya in 2011 and Ukraine today are significantly different. Muammar Qaddafi was a violent dictator who had ruled his country for four decades, while Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected by a wide margin, notwithstanding his lack of government experience. Civil war gripped Libya, whereas Ukraine is suffering from a brutal invasion. Notwithstanding these differences, there are certain similarities, chief among them the leading role of the United States and NATO. They should apply the lessons of the 2011 intervention in Libya as they consider how best to roll back the Russian invasion and then help meet Ukraine’s reconstruction needs.

Innocent Civilians Gravely Threatened

No one at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia was under any illusions about Qaddafi or his penchant for brutality. His infamous Feb. 22  speech just weeks earlier was fresh in our minds; he pledged he would hunt down protesters “inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alley by alley.” We had no doubt that he was deadly serious, and we already were seeing firsthand how Libyans and third-country laborers alike registered their fear by fleeing across the border into Tunisia.

Qaddafi’s brutal record and violent rhetoric were not the only reasons the U.N. Security Council approved the resolution. Ian Martin, as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s chief advisor on Libya, had an insider’s view of the international intervention in Libya. He explains in his comprehensive account, “All Necessary Measures?,” that the intervention “must also be understood in the wider context of the Arab Spring.” Martin cited President Barack Obama’s March 28, 2011, speech on Libya:  “The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.”

Rwanda and Srebrenica – and specifically the international community’s failure to protect civilians in both places – provided additional compelling reasons for decision-makers to intervene. Less influential in Martin’s view was the Responsibility to Protect doctrine; he assesses that the shame of inaction over Rwanda and Srebrenica was sufficient.

No Way Out

Martin recounts in detail how (once the military intervention had begun) several different parties, ranging from the African Union to Russia to the United States, sought to negotiate some sort of political transition. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman (who later served for six years as the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs) led the U.S. team for talks with the Libyans. (These talks took place the afternoon of  July 16, 2011, in my living room in Sidi Bou Said, a coastal suburb of Tunis.) The three-hour long session went nowhere due to the bombastic approach of the Libyans, who were in a state of total denial about the regime’s precarious future.

Given Qaddafi’s mercurial and vengeful character, it would have taken an unusual act of bravery for anyone on the Libyan side to even entertain the U.S. demand that Qaddafi and his family step down by trying to persuade or force them into such a move. Feltman was under no illusions that the talks would get anywhere, but the United States wanted to be sure it left no diplomatic stone unturned. Martin saw it the same way, and expresses his doubts “that Qaddafi would ever have been willing to give up the real power he wielded.”

Anyone even remotely familiar with the intervention in Libya will nod their heads as Martin shines a spotlight on mission creep. It has been a persistent – many would say damning – feature of U.S. military action this century (viz. Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Libya). Martin points out that on April 14 – not even a month after the authorization of all necessary measures to protect civilians – President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in a widely-published op-ed that “so long as Qaddafi is in power, NATO must maintain its operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds…. Qaddafi must go and go for good.” Martin notes that, although the official title of the op-ed on the White House website was “Libya’s Pathway to Peace,” The Times of London and the Daily Telegraph headline was the starker “The Bombing Continues until Qaddafi Goes.” 

Planning is Priceless

More catastrophic was the failure to plan for a post-Qaddafi transition, which Martin acerbically and accurately describes as “an almost complete absence of strategic thinking, accompanied by an extremely limited understanding of Libya among decision-makers.” In an interview broadcast on April 10, 2016, Obama said that the lack of planning for the “day after” was the biggest mistake of his presidency.

The sudden onset and cataclysmic nature of the Arab Spring contributed to a bandwidth issue in Western capitals, as I witnessed first-hand from my vantage point in Tunis. Egypt, home to a quarter of the Arab world, was a long-time partner of the United States and understandably absorbed the overwhelming preponderance of Washington’s attention.

Moreover, U.S. policymakers had long viewed North Africa as being more important to Europe, so there was an initial hope that the Europeans would take the lead in Libya (and Tunisia). That hope was not entirely unrealistic vis-à-vis Libya, considering the vigorous push for intervention by Cameron and particularly Sarkozy. But hope is not a strategy, as then-Senator Clinton famously needled U.S. Army General John Abizaid during a 2006 hearing on Iraq.

At the same time, even a rigorous strategic approach may not have averted Libya’s descent into civil war. Assessing the international community’s failures, Martin writes that it “underestimated two factors that would be the most divisive as Libya began to tear itself apart:  the conflict between Islamist and other political groups and battalions; and the rivalries of external actors, especially Qatar and the UAE, being played out in Libya.”  

Coalitions are Indispensable 

If the intervention’s gravest flaw was the absence of planning, one of its most important successes, in addition to saving the people of Benghazi, was the reliance on diplomatic and military coalitions. The U.N. Security Council moved forward with its resolution; one week earlier the Gulf Cooperation Council labeled the Qaddafi regime illegitimate and called on the Arab League to use its influence to advance measures to protect civilians.

Once the U.N. Security Council authorized all necessary measures, a military coalition of NATO members and Arab partners (Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) conducted a highly successful air campaign. The intervention proved once again not only the importance of coalitions but also the fact that, ever since the days of the Delian League, when Greek city states banded together under Athenian leadership in 478 BCE to defend against Persia, alliances have needed a strong leader to prevail.

Martin’s Lessons Apply to Ukraine Today

Martin had completed his book before Russia invaded Ukraine, but today’s policymakers should learn from the lessons he draws from the Libya intervention. Specifically, the United States and its NATO allies should bear in mind the following as they consider how best to support Ukraine:

  • While “America First” may have worked as a campaign slogan in 2016, the Biden administration’s synchronization of effort with NATO allies and its construction of a broader coalition to defend Ukraine proved that it has failed as a strategic tenet. Leveraging alliances is the most effective and efficient use of U.S. and NATO resources.
  • Mission creep is an ever-present danger, and policymakers need to be clear-eyed about their strategic objectives. (Whether it is tactically wise to publicly articulate them depends.) Is the U.S. and NATO goal in Ukraine to find a diplomatic compromise, to roll back Russian forces to the Feb. 23 status quo ante, or to reclaim all Ukrainian territory occupied since 2014, including the illegally annexed Crimea, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has articulated recently? Is the related objective to weaken Russia or to provide Putin an off-ramp to, as current French President Emmanuel Macron commented recently to some controversy, prevent his humiliation? U.S. diplomacy following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was exemplary in this regard because President George H.W. Bush publicly stated the clear goal for the coalition: the liberation of Kuwait by removing all Iraqi forces. Kuwait’s objective, of course, was the same.  Ukraine has a sovereign and functioning government, just as Kuwait did at the time of the invasion but unlike Libya in 2011. The United States and NATO need to coordinate closely with Ukraine on the ultimate goal rather than unilaterally fighting the war to the last Ukrainian or abandoning the country and its people to the Russian invasion.
  • Notwithstanding the day-to-day pressures of supporting Ukraine militarily and diplomatically, it remains imperative to begin planning now for reconstructing the country and supporting the Ukrainian people if and when the fighting stops. The June 27 White House fact sheet on G-7 support for Ukraine addresses short-term budgetary shortfalls and a long-term security commitment but does not provide any detail on reconstruction once the fighting ends. 

Although Martin focuses on an intervention that took place over a decade ago, his masterful explanation of what the international community got right and especially what it got wrong transcends Libya and will remain relevant for years to come. “All Necessary Measures?” should be required reading at war colleges, diplomatic academies, humanitarian NGOs, and the U.N.

IMAGE: France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy (2ndL), US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R), and France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe (L) take part in a working meeting prior to a G8 foreign ministers summit, on March 14, 2011 at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Group of Eight foreign ministers gathered in Paris to thrash out a common line on possible intervention to ground the warplanes pounding Libya’s rebels, among other global issues. (Photo by ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP via Getty Images)