At the end of August 2011, the BBC published the musings of its diplomatic editor, Mark Urban, on what future interventions in troubled countries would look like.
At the time, the former Libyan leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, had been ousted in a violent uprising inspired by the Arab Spring and Western interests. France, the US, and the UK had been more than helpful in striking at Gaddafi loyalists.
Urban’s write-up was a fairly monotonic piece but not in a boring way. It read as you would expect the educated opinions of a person who knows wars and some peace.
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But the piece also betrayed the detachment respectable society could still muster even in situations of gore on a massive scale. Urban – saying nothing about his person but as his work would require – was already looking forward to the next war even when Libyan bodies had not gone six feet down.
But Urban is only a man in the media, the fourth estate of the modern democratic establishment capable of just about anything if there is space.
The man who embodies so much of this esteemed detachment, with particular regards to Libya, is Barack Obama.
If there was a man who could afford to lead the offensive in Libya and look forward to another war like tomorrow is Tuesday, that was Obama.
In April of 2016, Obama said “failing to plan for the day after” the ousting Gaddafi was the worst mistake of his presidency. However, he had no regrets about intervening in Libya because it “was the right thing to do”.
Obama was pedantic in that interview, making sure he separated two things. He was a noncommital repenter, seeking the absolution he would not say sorry for.
That is the detachment he could afford. There was no sword of Damocles swinging around his head threatening to come down when things go wrong.
There is no denying that there was to Gaddafi’s overthrow, an organic and populist call. Indeed Gaddafi’s life had been in danger courtesy the venom of his own people since the 1980s.
In 1998, he survived one of the many attacks on his life by Arab militia thanks to the storied bravado of one of his revolutionary nuns who was killed in the attack.
A famously paranoid man, Gaddafi prioritised the advancement of his tribesmen, family and those loyal to him. His son, Khamis, led an army brigade, supposedly an avant-garde foil for any military coups.
Gaddafi treated his enemies from cities such as Dayda, Berna, and Benghazi, most of them perceived, with very little humanity.
It was estimated that before the uprising, one in three Libyans was not a satisfactory beneficiary of the massive returns in the country’s energy sector.
If one was looking for material to convict the idea that Gaddafi had to go, there was something. But logically, that state of affairs does not consist of permissions to the NATO intervention.
Some say the severity of the matter in 2011 called for Western bombs. Except the problem is that after World War II, Western “wars of freedom” outside Europe have not delivered as advertised.
In the trend of tradition, Obama’s after-Gaddafi plan was that there was no plan after Gaddafi.
It might not be Obama’s personal wish to leave the Libyan people headless and in a situation where human traffickers would have a field day. But his office gave him the right.
In the months leading up to the coalition that went in to Libya, the UK, France and the US threw around the necessary rhetoric and the actions synonymous with “we are very concerned”.
It was not until February 2011 that then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, decided that Gaddafi must go.
Between Sarkozy’s declaration and August 2011, about 20 countries had contributed to the muscle, machines and money to make the inevitable happen. There was not a single accord on how to not repeat the miseries of Iraq and Afghanistan that had happened just in the previous decade.
That problem was Libya’s.
Urban even wrote in that BBC piece: “There are good reasons why Libya should be able to pull itself up in the coming months – not least the positive spirit, and yearning for democracy…”.
Libya was avoidable for Obama, a man enamored with history and the symbolism of change. He could have negotiated a better alternative because at least, that is what he promised to be all about.
Leading the most powerful country in the world against a problematic dictator, Obama was well in the opposition to have sought a practical democratic experiment after the war.
And he knew he was going to be held to account on what happens after wars.
Speaking to The Atlantic in 2016, Obama’s former deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, noted this culture of accountability his former boss took: “If you were to say, for instance, that we’re going to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and build a prosperous democracy instead, the president is aware that someone, seven years later, is going to hold you to that promise.”
What we saw with Libya was a sketchily similar promise without using the words.
In announcing America’s participation in the coalition efforts, Obama said “we are protecting the Libyan people from Gaddafi’s forces” and “putting in other measures to avoid further atrocities….as part of a larger strategy to support the Libyan people.”
He was quick to add that the US’s role was minor and praised “more nations, not just the United States, bearing the responsibilities and cost of upholding peace and security.”
The logic here was not dissimilar to the confession in 2016. The hesitation was in there and so was the temptation to own up – a rather perfect blend of plausible deniability.
This was the detachment Obama could afford. It is believable that he does regret what has become of Libya but it is equally valid to say he was not thinking much about that when he signed the US up for the war.
And that is one of the blots he has to live with.