Shailja Patel (who I guess is a left-wing Kenyan intellectual) says (my italics)

It’s painful to us, in the global south, to see that American writers that we read assiduously, and take seriously, are not reading us. They are not listening when we say: “Please ask your president to stop killing us.” They appear to simply not see black and brown bodies beyond US borders.

Obama’s bombs took tens of thousands of civilian lives. His military intervention in Libya destroyed the country with the highest standard of living in Africa.

How viable is this as a reading of the history? My impression would be something like the following. Gaddafi was a nasty dictator in the mold of Saddam Hussein, who used ruthless force to keep the lid on internal divisions in his country, whose borders had presumably been drawn arbitrarily by Europeans. He was a pragmatic socialist, and Libya had good economic development by African standards. Gaddafi's government carried out terrorist attacks in 1986 and 1988, the former resulting in US air strikes that attempted to kill him and that did kill about 15-30 civilians. Libya had a nuclear program, which it gave up in the early 2000s. A civil war broke out during the Arab Spring period, in 2011. Within a month, the US came in with airstrikes to aid the rebels, with token participation from France and a fig leaf of legitimacy from the UN Security Council and NATO. (Had Libya not given up its WMDs, they might not have been able to do this.) The rebels won, and Gaddafi was killed in a ditch. Libya is now undergoing a period of warlordism involving sectarianism and tribalism.

I'm wondering if, as implied by Patel, I'm just not knowledgeable enough to judge the facts, or whether I have biases I don't realize. How viable is her reading of the history? It seems to me that Gaddafi was a demonstrably dangerous and threatening figure, and that if Libya has been destroyed, a lot of the blame is to be laid at the feet of Libyans themselves -- they started the revolution in 2011, and they continued it on their own terms, even if US intervention did tip the scales so that they won.

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    "Patel was born and raised in Kenya as a third-generation East African of Indian Gujarati heritage" from the wiki article. Commented Dec 23, 2017 at 17:49
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    This is an interesting question but I fear that it may well get closed as 'primarily opinion-based'. Commented Dec 23, 2017 at 17:51
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    @LarsBosteen: Yeah, I was worried about that when I wrote it. I think if the events had occurred in 1611 rather than 2011, then an otherwise similar question, calling for some judgment and interpretation, would not have raised any such concerns.
    – user2848
    Commented Dec 23, 2017 at 17:57
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    I don't think one has ever tried to measure how many Lybians have died due to Ghaddafi being in power and how many have died since ousting him. The transition period is difficult to handle because I would count it against him for holding on to his power, but that might not be justified.
    – jjack
    Commented Dec 23, 2017 at 18:21
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    Considering Libya is still in the top rank of HDI in Africa, and that somewhere between one and twelve thousand civilians seem to have been killed in total her comments are perhaps more emotional than factual.
    – Tomas By
    Commented Dec 23, 2017 at 19:21

3 Answers 3


The article is about the state of discourse in African American thinkers, not a history of the Libyan Civil War. In that sense, I wouldn't judge Patel too harshly.

Reading it in the full context of the article, the two statements about "Obama's bombs" and destroying Libya may not be connected. "Obama's bombs" may be referring to the Obama administration's air strikes not just in Libya, but worldwide including Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and other countries. In that sense, the claim that "Obama’s bombs took tens of thousands of civilian lives" has more validity. I believe it's more to express frustration with continued military imperialism under Obama than a lesson in military history.

The total question can rapidly get into opinion, especially trying to read the intent of an author making a quick statement on an Internet argument, so I'll focus on the verifiable statements as asked by the OP.

His military intervention in Libya destroyed the country with the highest standard of living in Africa.

As we'll see below, this was not Obama's intervention, it was an international effort spearheaded by France and taken up by NATO.

The NATO military intervention began after the country was already in a state of civil war for a month. As we'll see below, it was remarkably low on civilian casualties. The damage to the Libyan economy was from the 2011 civil war and the ongoing civil war.

Using the Human Development Index as a standard, Libya was hurt by the civil war, but not destroyed. It's still has one of the highest standards of living in Africa.

Just before the civil war in 2010, Libya did have the highest HDI in Africa. Libya's HDI index in 2010 was 0.756 ranking 53rd in the world. The civil war brought this down to 0.706 in 2011, but 2012 saw it recover to 0.735. It's been in slow decline since, the in 2016 Libya's HDI was 0.716 ranking it 102nd.

This is still considered "High Human Development" with nations such as China and Brazil. It's now the 2nd highest HDI in Africa, behind Tunisia. It is experiencing a 20% unemployment rate, but that has been steady for the past 20 years.

The slow decline Libya is experiencing is a result of the ongoing 2nd civil war and resulting chaos.

Obama's bombs...

It was truly an international effort.

@tj1000 already pointed out the problem with blaming Obama. This was a NATO operation and authorized by a UN Security Council Resolution calling for a No-Fly Zone.

The Libyan Civil War had already been going on for a month when NATO intervened. The UN No-Fly Zone was called for by the Libyan National Transition Council, France, Canada, UK, US, Lebanon, the Arab League, and Libyan Protesters to avert a humanitarian crisis by Gadaffi's air force. UN Security Council Resolution 1970 condemned the use of force by Gadaffi on protesters and referred the matter to the International Criminal Court.

If there was any single figure who was pushing for air strikes it was then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He was the first to ask the EU for sanctions. France recognized the Libyan NTC. He pressed the G8 and the US to intervene. French aircraft were the first to begin bombing on March 19th, quickly followed by coalition forces. French aircraft flew 35% of the sorties (though not necessarily of strike sorties), the highest percentage.

NATO took over within days.

...took tens of thousands of civilian lives.

All civilian casualties of the entire war which are estimated to be 5,000 to 50,000, depending on who you ask. So the idea that NATO bombing alone took tens of thousands of civilian lives is already a stretch.

The UN's Human Rights Council reported 60 civilians killed and 55 wounded due to NATO bombing. Human Rights Watch's investigation found "NATO air strikes killed at least 72 civilians, one-third of them children under age 18."

For this report Human Rights Watch investigated eight NATO air strikes hitting residential homes in which 28 men, 24 children, and 20 women lost their lives. Dozens of other civilians were wounded.

Based on extensive field investigations throughout Libya from August 2011 to April 2012, the report looks at all sites known to Human Rights Watch in which NATO strikes killed civilians. Strikes that resulted in no civilian fatalities—though civilians were wounded or property destroyed—were not included. Altogether, NATO conducted roughly 9,700 strike sorties and dropped over 7,700 precision-guided bombs during the seven-month campaign.

Given the number of NATO strikes, 72 civilian casualties is astonishingly low. Even the Human Rights Watch report admits NATO did a very good job minimizing civilian casualties.

NATO says it took extensive measures to minimize civilian harm, and those measures seem to have had a positive effect: the number of civilian deaths in Libya from NATO strikes was low given the extent of the bombing and duration of the campaign.

In contrast, the NATO air strikes probably saved civilian lives and limited the destruction by shortening the war and hastening the fall of Gadaffi's regime. A prolonged war could have been much worse, as has played out in the Syrian Civil War.

  • You are pushing the official story in your last paragraph.The official term for the intervention was something like "mass atrocity prevention". If you investigated it fairly, you may find that there would have been no viable cause for the rebels without NATO support.
    – John Dee
    Commented Dec 29, 2017 at 3:49

Not accurate at all. The Libyan intervention of 2011 was in fact a NATO operation, including the forces of the UK, US, France, Italy, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, with the UAE and Qatar participating in the no fly zone enforcement. This was undertaken pursuant to UN Resolution 1973.

It's not something that Obama took upon himself to do, and the US was only part of the effort. France and Italy were active participants in the UN resolution and NATO action, as they stood to lose the most from a full blown Libyan civil war: a flood of refugees.

Singling out Obama is hardly accurate, as the ultimate authority came from the UN, via NATO. He just makes a very visible and high profile target. Sounds better to critique Obama than the UN secretary general, or the commanding general of NATO, or the leaders of France and Italy.

That effort may well have backfired on France and Italy... they avoided Libyan refugees, only to get hit with Syrian refugees, partially because the UN and NATO shied away from another intervention after the Libya situation turned sour.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 19:38

It is a valid representation of history. However, it's so short and lacks so much detail that it can only claim to be part of the complete picture. A piece of the puzzle which doesn't attempt to address the Libyan role, the complexity of the American role, the history of Libya with the west, tactics used, tactics not used, west's motivation, the NATO Role, the origins of the uprising inside of Libya, and aftermath.

A more complete picture would address a lot more details: