Anti-interventionists often cite the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) 2011 air war in Libya in arguments over the Syrian civil war. What these opinionated partisans never mention is that NATO’s military action against the forces of dictator Moammar Ghadafi’s regime was not only popular with Libyans but overwhelmingly so.
A Gallup poll taken in 2012 found the following:
- 75% favored NATO’s actions in their country.
- 54% approved of U.S. leadership, which according to Gallup is the highest approval rating “ever recorded in the Middle East and North Africa region, outside of Israel.”
- 19% approved of Russia’s leadership (which opposed NATO’s attacks on Ghadafi’s forces).
- 22% approved of China’s leadership (which opposed NATO’s attacks on Ghadafi’s forces).
- 61% considered members of Ghadafi’s regime to be a major security threat.
- 62% considered Al-Qaeda and other Islamic militants to be a major security threat.
- 48% considered Western military forces to be a major threat.
- 77% favored Western military aid to their fledgling armed forces.
- 68% supported Western military trainers being sent to their country.
- 77% favored Western governance experts being sent to assist their new government.
- 56% opposed Western aid for Libyan political groups.
Gallup is a reputable polling organization and the sample size of 1,000 is the industry standard because sample sizes that large yield a low margin of error (for the math behind why that is the case, see this).
A second poll done by a similarly reputable British polling organization, Orb International, yielded similar results:
- 85% strongly supported NATO military action against Ghadafi.
- 89% expressed a favorable or very favorable view of the United Kingdom.
- 58% agreed that Libya and Britain should keep strong and close links with one another.
- 83% viewed then-Prime Minister David Cameron favorably.
- 76% agreed the country’s government should be chosen by the people in free, competitive elections.
- 68% considered the post-Ghadafi government — the National Transition Council — effective in helping to improve life Libya.
What becomes clear from these two polls is that not only was NATO’s military assistance in toppling Ghadafi overwhelmingly popular among Libyans, Libyans wanted continued intervention to help restore law and order after the chaos and upheaval brought about by the 2011 revolution. Although a near majority worried about unwanted Western military action in their country, more Libyans wanted closer and more harmonious economic, political, diplomatic, and military relations with Western governments.
This is not to suggest that everyone in Libya supported NATO’s intervention. The Ghadafi regime was opposed and organized rallies denouncing NATO’s interference with their counter-revolution. But after the regime was overthrown in 2011, these anti-NATO protests stopped. No anti-intervention political parties formed after 2011 with enough popular support to win any elections. Pushed to the margins of Libyan politics by their unpopularity, Ghadafi loyalist tribes in Sirte joined Islamic State (ISIS) to continue their struggle against the new government and against Western intervention.
Openly acknowledging what Libyans thought about NATO’s intervention would put anti-interventionists in the awkward and arrogant position of asserting that they (non-Libyans) knew better than Libyans what was good for Libya in 2011. Students of history will recognize this contradiction for what it is — the racist, colonialist White Man’s Burden, although couched in fiercely ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric. To avoid touching on this contradiction, anti-interventionists are forced to regard Libyans as passive victims to be pitied rather than politically active participants to be supported or engaged. For them, what matters in Libya is the West’s iniquity, not Libyan aspirations.