As the rebel overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya nears completion, the intervention by a multinational military force looks more and more like a success. The decision by the United States and many of its NATO allies to intervene in the Libyan revolution was bold and controversial when first announced. However, the political and military developments in Libya demonstrate the effectiveness of the multinational strategy. The analysis of the factors that made the Libyan intervention a success will be an important study for future military operations. Here is a list of six key factors that hold future lessons for policymakers:
1. At its core, the revolution was always a Libyan struggle. Like other recent revolutions in the Middle East, the rebels truly wanted a change of power, and they were willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve success. Unlike Iraq, which had no organic uprising before the 2003 U.S. invasion, the Libyan case was always about Libyans fighting against their repressive government.
2. Asymmetry of force was the biggest obstacle to the rebels’ success. The Libyan rebels had the will and the numbers, but they lacked the guns, training, and other resources of the Libyan army. A multilateral military force flipped the asymmetry in favor of the rebels. As a result, the rebels held advantages in both will and resources, making victory a near inevitability.
3. The intervention was truly an international effort. With the dark shadow of American interventionism in the previous decade still on many people’s minds, world leaders could not afford to make the Libya operation seem like an American crusade under a thin guise of multilateralism. Instead, the U.S. played only a partial role that focused mostly on non-combat tasks such as logistics and intelligence. The majority of live fighting remained the responsibility of the Europeans.
4. Risks of military casualties were low for NATO forces. Because American cruise missiles destroyed much of the Libyan anti-aircraft defenses early on, the bombing missions amounted to little more than training missions with live ammunition. The decision to keep “boots off the ground” insured low casualty risk, not to mention the mitigation of domestic political pressure across Europe and the U.S. To date, NATO forces have not suffered a single casualty.
5. Libya had no allies willing to come it its aid. When Western powers decided to intervene in Libya, they knew that the risk of a wider international conflagration was low. Libya’s Arab neighbors — Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Sudan — were not willing to come to the aid of the Gaddafi regime. Furthermore, these countries were already preoccupied with their own domestic upheavals. A fight with Libya would remain a fight with Libya alone.
6. Libya has little regional importance, unlike Syria or Iran. For a variety of reasons, engaging Arab countries would be a tremendous risk for regional stability. Ties between countries like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Israel cannot be isolated the way that Libya can. The overthrow of a long-time dictator will no doubt send shock waves through Libya, but those shockwaves will largely dissipate at the border. The same cannot be said for many other countries throughout the Middle East.
Now it is only a matter of time before Gaddafi falls, and the National Transitional Council takes over full control of the country. Soon Libya can turn its full attention to the future and the possibility of a democratic state.
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