This commentary draws from an article that will appear in the December 2012–January 2013 issue of Survival.
The tragic assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 raised new doubts about the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. But while the attack drew into question aspects of Libya's transition, it did not change the fact that the intervention had toppled Muammar Qaddafi and opened the door to a better future for the country. Without it hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent civilians would have died and the pro-democracy protest movements sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa would probably have been slowed. From this perspective it remains a genuine, even if moderate, success for NATO.
But could it be repeated? A year after Qaddafi's death, the ways in which good fortune contributed to NATO's success are even clearer. Militarily, Qaddafi's air defense system was relatively weak and his security forces had been so hollowed out that most of them quickly defected. Geographically, most of Libya's important towns, including Tripoli, were located near the Mediterranean coast, within fairly easy striking distance of NATO bases in Italy and Greece. Politically, France and Britain—largely for domestic political reasons—were eager to push their allies to intervene. And international opprobrium of Qaddafi's actions was strong enough to permit a UN Security Council Resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, as well as a more ambitious civilian protection mission that allowed NATO to attack Qaddafi's ground forces.