Obama Official Still Defends Doctrine That Led to Disastrous Libya Strikes

Anne-Marie Slaughter hasn’t given up on intervention and the “responsibility to protect” doctrine.


Former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter defended the "responsibility to protect" doctrine—and the military intervention in Libya it led to—at a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

She also claimed to have spoken out against the intervention in Libya when it went too far, although she was a vocal supporter of the U.S.-led war effort at its beginning and end.

Slaughter, a longtime proponent of the idea that states have a duty to stop crimes against humanity in other states by force, served as director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011. Soon after leaving office, she publicly pushed the Obama administration to intervene to protect Libyan civilians amid an ongoing uprising.

President Barack Obama cited Slaughter's doctrine as a reason to launch military strikes against Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi in March 2011. After Gadhafi was ousted, Libya fell under the rule of armed militias, eventually resulting in the Second Libyan Civil War, which killed thousands of Libyans and was ongoing until last October.

Slaughter doubled down on her support for humanitarian intervention on Wednesday while addressing the House Foreign Affairs Committee alongside several other veteran diplomats.

"It's a doctrine that's going to evolve a great deal over this century. I think it is the right doctrine, but it can easily be used in the wrong ways," she said.

Slaughter added that "one of the lessons" of the past few years has been "that we need intervention much further upstream" to prevent armed conflict.

She was responding to a question by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.) about the effects of humanitarian intervention.

"For a long time, you have been one of the most vocal champions of the 'responsibility to protect' doctrine and so-called humanitarian intervention," Omar said. "I am under no illusion about the Taliban or Gadhafi or [Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein. But I am also under no illusion about how those countries look today."

"Maybe there was a sense of moral righteousness about our interventions there, but there should be more clarity about what the consequences have been," the Minnesota* congresswoman added.

Slaughter responded that the Iraq War had little to do with responsibility to protect—and did not mention the Taliban or the war in Afghanistan—but defended her stance on Libya.

"I strongly supported intervention on the grounds of responsibility to protect because it looked like the Libyan people in Benghazi were facing genocide—crimes against humanity," Slaughter said.

In March 2011, the Libyan government had lost control of Benghazi to armed rebels, and pro-Gadhafi forces were gearing up for a counteroffensive to retake the city. Gadhafi himself had promised to fight "house by house" and show "no mercy or compassion" to the rebels.

The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on March 17, 2011, authorizing foreign militaries to use any means short of an occupation to protect Libyan civilians. The United States and its allies began an air campaign against pro-Gadhafi forces two days later. Several countries eventually sent military advisers to assist the opposition.

Gadhafi was captured and tortured to death by rebels in October 2011 near the end of the First Libyan Civil War. Years of unrest and a second civil war followed.

The post-Gadhafi unrest in Libya became an international proxy war involving sectarian militias, mercenary forces, and advanced military hardware. Libyans even witnessed the resurrection of slave markets.

The U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli and the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar signed a ceasefire in October 2020 and finally agreed to a unity government earlier this month.

Slaughter acknowledged that U.S. intervention had the potential to cause chaos. "We cannot engage in armed interventions for the responsibility to protect if we do not have both a plan and a commitment…to support whatever government emerges over the long haul," she said.

And she claimed to have spoken out when the U.S.-led war effort in Libya went too far.

"I actually wrote during the intervention in Libya when it became clear that arms were pouring into the country—and it became clear that this was not just responsibility to protect, this was going to overthrow Gadhafi—we were setting the country up, and particularly the women and children in the country, for decades of violence," Slaughter told Congress.

She had indeed warned in a July 2011 article for The Financial Times that "stopping the fighting now is more important than an opposition victory on the current terms advocated by the National Transitional Council in Benghazi" because Libya was risking "a cycle of radicalisation and entrenchment that makes it progressively harder rather than easier to reach a settlement."

But Slaughter wrote a month later that critics were proven wrong.

"The sceptics must now admit that the real choice in Libya was between temporary stability and the illusion of control, or fluidity and the ability to influence events driven by much larger forces," she wrote for the same publication in August 2011. "Libya proves the west can make those choices wisely after all."

CORRECTION: This piece previously described Rep. Ilhan Omar as a Michigan congresswoman. She is actually from Minnesota.