Barack Obama

Obama Admits Haphazard U.S. Intervention in Libya 'Worst Mistake' of His Presidency

Says it taught him to make sure interventions included plans for the aftermath.


In his first interview on Fox News Sunday since becoming president, Barack Obama admitted that "failing to plan for, the day after" the U.S. intervention in Libya was the worst mistake of his presidency.

Obama mentioned the same failure two weeks ago in a BBC interview. "That's a lesson I now apply when we're asked to intervene militarily," Obama said. "Do we have a plan for the day after?"

That ought to be a shocking statement. After all, U.S. history is littered with interventions that failed in their aftermath. The lootings in post-invasion Iraq, the bloody campaign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the large-scale humanitarian disaster that remains North Korea are just a handful of examples of the consequences of U.S. interventions that any U.S. policy maker ought to be expected to know, let alone the U.S. president.

Obama, of course, is likely wrong. It was not just a lack of adequate post-intervention planning that turned Libya into a failing state and hotbed for radical Islamist terrorist groups—the U.S.-led intervention itself did that. It's hard to imagine what kind of planning, short of installing a dictatorial puppet regime, would've prevented the power vacuum in which subsequent instability has thrived.

The lesson of Iraq should have been sufficient. Although the U.S. failed to plan for the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, even when the U.S. started getting serious about "nation building" in Iraq that couldn't be a guarantee of success. The perceived intelligence, or lack thereof, of George W. Bush and members of his administration could not alone account for the failure in Iraq. After all, the Obama administration's military "surge" in Afghanistan, which was coupled with a "political" surge of State Department bureaucrats, did not have better results in that country.

But the importance of the admission of a total lack of planning should not be understated. It's frustrating, but unsurprising, that a president whose supporters celebrate for his "intelligence" would do something so spectacularly stupid as commit to a regime-changing intervention without an inkling of what would come next, especially on the heels of a successor, Bush, whose entire presidency was defined by his failure to do the same in Iraq.  In fact, the idea that President Obama has some kind of remarkable intelligence only contributes to failures like Libya. The man did not have a plan for what to do after Col. Qaddafi was removed from power in Libya. That's a display of stunning ignorance, trumped only by the unequivocal inability of the Congress, in 2011 or since then, to assert its role in war making and hold the Obama administration accountable for making war without its consent.  

The Obama administration, for its part, denied regime change was a goal of the 2011 intervention. That was a legalistic framing that served to confuse the issue. The Obama administration may not have felt sure enough of the legal ground under it to admit its goal in Libya was to depose Qaddafi, but members of the administration cannot plausibly argue, and do not argue, that regime change was an unforeseen consequence of the 2011 intervention.

Democrats tell themselves that their leaders are smarter than Republicans. It's often their last refuge when their candidates, like Hillary Clinton, end up being functionally just as pro-war as the Republicans they so whole-heartedly oppose. Obama's admission should stand as evidence that that's not true and of the damage those kinds of illusions can cause.

U.S. foreign policy is unlikely to improve irrespective of who wins this year's presidential election. As Obama's admission illustrates, it's critical for Congress to reclaim its responsibilities in the foreign policy decision-making process. Victims of America's wars, from Libya to Yemen, from Obama's wars to Bush's wars to wars long forgotten, deserve more than an American anti-war movement animated solely by partisan concerns.