Journalism in the Public Interest

As Qaddafi Is Buried, a Look Back at the Complexities and Contradictions of the Libya Mission

The military goal wasn’t regime change, but the political goal was. Airstrikes and drones caused bloodshed, but the U.S. said it wasn’t engaging in “hostilities.” We review the last eight months in Libya.


Libyans wave their new national flag as they celebrate in the streets of Tripoli following news of Muammar Qaddafi's capture on Oct. 20, 2011. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

With Muammar Qaddafi now dead in Libya and NATO tentatively winding down its mission there by the end of the month, the Obama administration has claimed another foreign policy victory, touting the fact that “we achieved our objectives” without putting ground troops in Libya.

The path to this point has not been a quick one — or one without legal questions, concerns back home, and substantial cost: An estimated $1.1 billion to the Defense Department alone as of the end of last month, according to a Pentagon spokesman. Here’s a quick look back at how U.S. involvement began and evolved in the eight months since the first airstrikes.

U.S. Leads, Then Asks NATO to Take Over

After several days of Qaddafi’s attacks to squelch planned uprisings in February and his continued threats of violence and use of mercenaries, the Arab League asked the U.S. and other UN leaders to establish a no-fly zone over Libya. The UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the no-fly zone as well as “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.

Then the allied airstrikes began, with the U.S. in the lead. President Obama announced he had authorized “a limited military action in Libya” for the sole purpose of protecting civilians. “We will not — I repeat — we will not deploy any U.S. troops on the ground,” he said.

Facing criticism at home for military action without Congressional authorization, the administration also pledged that U.S. leadership of the mission would be “limited in scope and duration" and said that in “days, not weeks,” leadership would be transferred to a broader international coalition.

When that transfer of leadership to NATO finally happened at the end of March, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified before lawmakers saying that the U.S. had taken on a “support role” and “will not be taking an active part in strike activities.” The United States' limited role in the mission, the Obama administration argued, did not rise to the level of engagement in "hostilities," and therefore did not require congressional approval as specified in the 1973 War Powers Act. As we noted, this unusual legal argument stirred controversy in Congress, and even lawmakers supportive of the Libya intervention ridiculed it as flimsy.

No Combat Boots in Libya, But Spies on the Ground and Drones Overhead

Nonetheless, U.S. aircraft kept striking targets in Libya in early April, clouding assertions that the U.S. had taken a back seat and was simply using its planes for refueling, reconnaissance and other support functions. Pentagon officials said the attacks were not characterized as “strikes” because they were considered defensive missions, as the New York Times and Wired reported.

The CIA, meanwhile, was also in the country providing support to the rebels, though the White House and the Pentagon wouldn’t comment on intelligence matters.

The drone strikes began in mid-April. Then-Defense Secretary Gates announced that the situation in Libya was “evolving,” and the United States had taken on the “very limited additional role” of providing NATO with armed predator drones. He pushed back against allegations of mission creep.

U.S.air strikes and drone strikes over Libya continued until the end. In August, Reuters reported that the Pentagon had actually ramped up the pace of its airstrikes as rebel forces advanced into the Libyan capital of Tripoli, a Qaddafi stronghold.

And U.S. military personnel did, in fact, arrive on the ground in Libya eventually. More than a dozen troops arrived in September as part of a State Department team assessing the damage to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. “When the president made his commitment to no boots on the ground, that obviously had to do with entering the fray between the Qaddafi forces and the Libyan freedom fighters, and that’s not what these guys are engaged in,” a State Department spokeswoman said.

Military Goal vs. Policy Goal

Throughout the Libyan conflict, various statements by administration officials attempted to draw a distinction between the United States’ military mission of protecting civilians and its policy goal of regime change. But practically speaking, the two were at times hard to distinguish — especially with NATO, the coordinating alliance, continually extending the mission and laying the groundwork for a Libya without Qaddafi.

In speeches, President Obama stated that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” but also that “Libya will remain dangerous” until Qaddafi leaves power.

Pentagon officials emphasized that their goal was not to oust Qaddafi militarily. “The mission as currently stated — to prevent a humanitarian crisis — is the right mission at the right time,” said Gates, emphasizing that regime change can take a while, and neither the U.S. nor NATO should exaggerate its ability to influence the outcome.

The State Department, meanwhile, spoke of the need to “finish the job on the ground in Libya” and fully liberate the country. “We have been focused on getting rid of Qaddafi and moving on to a democratic Libya,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in an August 22 briefing.

But with the achievement of the United States’ stated political objective — getting rid of Qaddafi — Pentagon officials have commended the success of the NATO mission and the cooperation of its members. “They accomplished this mission that Gadhafi is no longer, and finally Libya belongs to the Libyan people,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters.

Qaddafi was captured by former rebel fighters and killed after he fled a convoy that had been hit by NATO airstrikes. Libya’s interim leaders have pledged to investigate the precise circumstances of his death, but Panetta confirmed that the initial airstrikes that struck Qaddafi’s convoy were carried out by a U.S. drone along with other NATO planes.

Barry Schmittou

Oct. 25, 2011, 2:13 p.m.

ProPublica’s Ms. Wang wrote :

President Obama stated that “Libya will remain dangerous” until Qaddafi leaves power.”

America will remain dangerous until Obama and the leaders of the Republican and Democtratic parties leave office, as seen at :

The evidence includes :

(1) Wachovia Bank laundered $378 billion for Mexican drug cartels that are responsible for 35,000 murders. No one was prosecuted !!

(2) Bank of America, American Express Bank International and Western Union also laundered drug money and no one was prosecuted.

(3) AIG, JP Morgan Chase, MetLife, Prudential, Unum, rigged huge bids and no one was prosecuted!!

(4) Multiple Insurance companies caused Mass Suicides, Deaths and Endangerment in Five Different Types of Insurance as they ignore Multiple Sclerosis, Brain lesions, and Cardiac Conditions of many Patients.

I hope someone who is on a Federal or Local Grand Jury will see the evidence I’ve posted and seek indictments of the major corporations who repeatedly commit crimes, and also seek indictments of the Government officials from both parties who protect the corporate crimes.

How does Wang know that that was Gaddafi?

How does she know that Qaddafi was captured by former rebel fighters and killed after he fled a convoy that had been hit by NATO airstrikes?

She is reporting what the government says as fact. No journalism here, just obseqious devotion to the government’s agenda.

“Former rebel fighters”? If they killed him then that means they were n’t “former” rebels, doesn’t it?

Want truth about Libya and Qaddafi? Look up Lizzy Phelan a real journalist who reports the truth no matter how bad it may be.

The truth is Qaddafi was a democratically elected leader, the people loved him and showed their support 2 million strong.

This article was correct in saying that the CIA was supporting the “rebels” what they don’t tell you is that the “rebels” are hired mercenaries.

Libya has large resources that are important to France (water aquifers), USA (oil), all countries (gold).

What’s even more shocking is that Qaddafi was attempting to move the African nations toward a gold standard currency. This would mean that once he got the arab nations on board with his plan the US and other countries with paper money wouldn’t be able to afford oil.

Yep, that’s right another oil war. Only this time it was really about gold. In 1996 and 2000 Qaddafi held summits to talk about the new African gold Dinar which would be a gold based currency.

This is the truth, ironically reported in Russia Today’s news service. How strange that a country that formally was the main source of propaganda has now become the only source of truth as the USA slowly implodes.

The 2,500 mercenaries were Africans hired by Gaddafi and are now being hunted, interrogated and held by Libyan rebels.  A lot of innocent blacks are reportedly being arrested.  The charge that the Libyan rebels themselves are mercenaries came from possibly the world’s most dishonest enemy of the U.S., Hugo Chavez. Anything that comes from Russia Today or Hugo Chavez is probably not credible. Other news sources like the Christian Science Monitor have reported that Gaddafi was fleeing in a convoy that was attacked by a French jet and a U.S. drone.  When he attempted to flee on foot he was reportedly captured by Libyan rebels.  How he died is still unknown, but it is likely he was murdered by his own people along with many of his loyal followers.  The truth will come out eventually.  Meanwhile Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham - who led the trillion dollar debtors war into Iraq - are now urging the U.S. to stay in Libya for the long term because there “is money to be made” rebuilding the country, and from oil (which I thought went mostly to Italy).  Both Senators claim Libya will pay us back using the $37 billion in state assets that were seized when the revolution started.  Fox News - another unreliable source - which only months ago was whining about the cost of the Libyan campaign, is now supporting McCain and Graham’s cries for a long term committment.  The U.S. government says it plans to withdraw along with the rest of NATO in two weeks, which sounds like a better and less expensive policy than the alternative.

Barry Schmittou

Oct. 28, 2011, 5:17 p.m.

Hi Max,

I wish I could take all the overwhelming evidence I’ve compiled and put it in succinct summaries like you and other commenters on ProPublica do. There are so many connections to evidence, and so many crimes being committed in finance and insurance, I struggle to try to express things in a way that will lead people to take actions that are legal, peaceful and successful. My eye surgeries don’t help things either. So much of the evidence posted by ProPublica and commenters should lead to prosecutions if we ever see justice in America and the world.

South African Afrikaner mercenaries were trying to take Gaddafi out of Sirte. They thought that NATO wanted him out. Two out of 30 vehicles were hit by NATO .He was put on foot by in the midst of NATO mercenaries from Bengazi. and experienced a most heinous torture/murder that was broadcast around the world. It was but one of the low points in a week a 16 year old American born citizen was killed by a drone strike in Yemen. Nobel Peace Prize winner President Obama has a lot to brag about. Let’s not forget that the murder and looting of Libyans by NATO backed thugs is ongoing.  Tribal animosities are inflamed . There is no possibility of a Democratic society emerging .  Victory?

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