Libya: From a Confidently Predicted Foreign Policy Success to Total Failure

Vladimir Rodban

In his article on the judgement of foreign policy success, Stephen M. Walt attempts to lay out a framework within which foreign policy decisions can be judged based on their positive outcomes in American society. Part of this framework is judging how well a foreign policy leads to greater protection for American citizens at home. Walt writes that “U.S. foreign policy succeeds when it makes American citizens safer from external harm.” However, one of the things that Walt did not touch on was the time frame. A U.S. foreign policy could be perceived as a major success in the short term, but lead to a national security disaster in the future. As a result, it is not enough to have a “scoreboard” for a given year as Walt says, foreign policy decision can take years, sometimes even decades for their consequences to materialize.

While reading Walt and also Silver who talks about the failure of prediction, I instantly remembered the title of a New York Times article from 2011. The title read “NATO’s Success in Libya.” At the time, it was considered a foreign policy success. U.S. and Western intelligence obviously predicted that the removal of Muammar el-Qaddafi would quickly lead to a thriving democracy in Libya. For a short time after, there was still high hope for the future of Libya. It was a grand success. A brutal dictator was removed and the people of Libya were freed from oppression. The free world gained a major victory. This was all thanks to a well calculated U.S. foreign policy which advocated for military action against Qaddafi. Walt writes that “we also evaluate a country’s foreign policy by whether it is consistent with accepted moral standards and effective at promoting broader political values.” In the immediate aftermath of the NATO operation in Libya, it seemed that the U.S. foreign policy which led this effort was a grand success for United States. However, flash forward a few years, and the real consequences of U.S. involvement in Libya has come to light.

Six years later and a dead U.S. ambassador, and Libya is in utter chaos. The country is ruled by a number of warring militias and groups. The country has turned into war zone. Worst of all, ISIS conquered large swaths of territory and significantly increased their numbers. The title of a Huffington Post article from 2016 reads “What we know about ISIS in Libya.” Just a few years ago, the NATO operation in Libya was considered a great achievement with some saying that it should be the model for future U.S. operations. Today, U.S. forces are bombing ISIS targets in the country. Americans are certainly not safer as a result of that original U.S. foreign policy decision to intervene in Libya. Time is an important element in judging the success of foreign policy. What may look like a success, can often simply be an illusion.


2 thoughts on “Libya: From a Confidently Predicted Foreign Policy Success to Total Failure

  1. Vlad, I liked how you incorporated Silver’s analysis of prediction/the failure of US policy by tracking the success of US foreign policy in Libya. I agree that an important factor in judging policy is time, and whether that policy is able to survive/be sustainable in an unpredictable region. I think that policy makers/students of policy often forget about using time as a variable, and as a way to determine if a policy was successful. I think it’s really easy to look at a policy, and only look at its immediate effects, and to not check to see if the policy improved or worsened conditions in the years follow. I think Libya was a perfect example to use to demonstrate your point.



  2. Hey Vlad,
    I liked your point about the time frame of success, as many “successful” foreign policy decisions might not be seen as such after some time. It is not something that I thought of while reading, although I think it is a strong point. Like you, I immediately thought of how Libya was seen as a success immediately after the fact and how much things have changed since. It is the perfect example to support your argument. We definitely failed to predict the outcome. It is easy to deem something a success at the time, but clearly that doesn’t always remain true.


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