US meddling in Africa and the Middle East: Does foreign intervention make sense?

It has gone down in history as the most rapid mass slaughter ever recorded: The genocide in the African state of Rwanda in 1994, where up to a million people were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists[1] while the outside world watched what was going on – and did almost nothing to stop it. And yet out of that catastrophe, impetus arose for a new concept called „R2P“ – the “responsibility to protect”. The principle states that, when a state is failing to protect its own people from crimes against humanity, other states have a moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable and use military force if necessary.

The United States have a striking record when it comes to foreign interventions – especially in Africa and the Middle East. But is it sensible to intervene in foreign political affairs? Or does it only add fuel to the fire?

A long history of US interventions in foreign political affairs

Somalia 1992, Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003, Libya 2011: Just to name a few events in Africa and the Middle East that show how the US has fiddled with foreign political affairs for years. Even though the reasons for these interventions were not always the same – the conclusion one can draw from all of these interventions, definitely is: Wiping away pre-existing governing structures has always set off civil conflict and the detrimental impact of these interventions is still visible in every single one of these countries today. 

Why? Because the attempt to forcibly democratise a society with military means almost always created a power vacuum which was then filled by violent groups. The result: state decay and militia rule. 

US intervention in Libya: More Harm Than Good?

Let’s take America’s intervention in Libya as an example for the R2P concept: In 2011, Libyan rebels (propped up by a multi-state NATO coalition including the US) toppled their head of state Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled the country for more than 40 years. In the US, he was considered a very controversial leader under whom freedom of speech was said to have been “severely curtailed”[2] and cases of abuse, torture, and killings by the state were also reported.

But just because Gaddafi was out of the picture, things didn’t get better. Now, almost 10 years after the intervention, Libya is still mired in a violent, domestic conflict: The country finds itself faced with a catch-22 as it is left with warring militias, an economy in tatters, and an infrastructure torn asunder. The icing on the cake: In the wake of the chaos that ensued after 2011, two rivalling administrations emerged in Libya. Khalifa Haftar, warlord and commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) backs one of them: The House of Representatives. The other administration is known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and is internationally recognised.

The US had been silent about the subsequent chaos for years. But then, at the end of his term, former President Barack Obama finally admitted that the US intervention in Libya had not really been as successful as he thought it would be and that he simply underestimated the sweeping scope of unintended consequences that had flowed from the intervention. When asked about his worst mistake, Obama replied with „probably failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, intervening in Libya.” [3]

What the Libyan tragedy has explicitly shown is that acting within the framework of the “responsibility to protect” concept is not always the right way to go. Critics have come up with the principle of the “responsibility to rebuild” – which should definitely be taken into consideration if the US should decide to conduct a regime change in a foreign country again.

Because yes, wanting to protect citizens from atrocities is commendable and yes, humanitarian intervention has the potential to help meet global problems. But the US government’s expectations should be realistic, and ambitions should be bounded – because history has clearly shown that foreign-imposed regime change rarely leads to democratisation. The US should abandon its persistent fantasy of reordering the world – America should not be the world’s police.


[1] BBC: “Rwanda genocide: 100 days of slaughter“, 4th April 2019.

[2] Human Rights Watch 2010 report on Libya.

[3] The Atlantic: “The Legacy of Obama’s ‘Worst Mistake’  15th April 2016.

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