Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science



On April 6, 1994, Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. Soon after, there were reports that massive ethnic-based violence was unfolding, and the only way to stop it was the presence of an outside military force. The Clinton administration knew Rwanda was being engulfed by genocide but ignored the information to justify its inaction. Seventeen years later, on 15 February 2011, the arrest of Mr. Fathi Terbil, a well-known lawyer and human rights defender by the Libyan internal security forces (Jihaz al-Amn al-Dakhili) sparked a mass protest in Benghazi, Libya. When demonstrations began the Gaddafi government responded with systematic attacks by air and ground forces against peaceful protesters. In a speech, Gaddafi promised to chase down the protesters and cleanse the country "house by house." The U.S. intervened in a NATO-led military intervention to prevent government forces loyal to Gaddafi from committing large-scale killings against their own people. In a dramatic change from U.S. foreign policy in 1994, the U.S.-led NATO coalition orchestrated the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. What does explain this change in foreign policy behavior, from inaction to military intervention? Why did the U.S. intervene in Libya?

My hypothesis is that the driving force behind U.S. intervention in the Libyan civil war was the “Responsibility to Protect” the Libyan people. The purpose of this dissertation is to assess the degree to which the evolving norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) affected the U.S. response to mass killings and military intervention in

Libya in 2011. R2P is not a formula for military intervention per se. It is a continuum that encompasses a range of responses that include early warning, prevention, and post-conflict reconstruction. Recourse to armed intervention comes only as a last resort. At the core of this norm is the presumption that individuals have rights that trump states’ claims to immunity against external interference.

To further assess the role of R2P in the decision-making process, I used a detailed narrative to chronicle the facts and events from the beginning of the uprising in mid-February through the election of the General National Congress, the political body that was supposed to usher in a new era of freedom in the country. I consulted relevant publicly available U.S. government documents including Executive Orders, White House Letters and Press Releases, speeches, Congressional letters, transcripts from hearings of the House and Senate Committees and Subcommittees, U.N. Security Council reports, U.N. Human Rights Council reports, International Criminal Court reports, and U.N. General Assembly reports. I also used secondary scholarly literature such as academic research, articles, books, memoirs, media coverage and news reports, especially The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters, CNN, Time, etc. I was fortunate to secure interviews with General Carter Ham, U.S. four-star General and Commander of Operation ‘Odyssey Dawn’ the code name of U.S. intervention in Libya.

The finding of this study is that U.S. decision to act was prompted by the quickly deteriorating situation on the ground, the call by the Arab League and the African Union, and, most decisively, internal pressure from the ‘dream team’ of genocide prevention – Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Hilary Clinton. Samantha Power is an avid R2P advocate; her book on the issue, A Problem from Hell, so affected Obama that he invited her to join his Senate staff as foreign policy fellow. She also briefly served in his campaign foreign-policy brain trust. She was the first to suggest military intervention to prevent humanitarian atrocities in Libya. After being part a member of Bill Clinton's National Security Team when it failed to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Susan Rice strongly endorsed R2P in 2009. She later expressed regret for not doing enough to prevent the Rwandan genocide. During her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton promised to implement R2P and make genocide prevention one of the principles of her foreign policy. The three women were joined by Senator John Kerry who said that “the memory of Rwanda, alongside Iraq in ’91, made it clear” that the United had to act in conjunction with the international community; by Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. Furthermore, Qaddafi’s bloodthirsty rhetoric, the support of the Arab League, and NATO’s commitment to act convinced the President that the United States had to act to protect civilians and prevent mass atrocities in Benghazi.

The empirical part of this research shows that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) the Libyan people played an important role in the U.S. decision to act. The language of the deliberation was framed in R2P terms. Over and over again, the stated goal within both the U.S. government and the United Nations was the protection of the Libyan population against the threat of mass extermination at the hands of their own government. And this was not just a mere rhetorical device to address an important security issue. R2P was operative right from the early stages of the conflict. Recourse to military intervention came only as a last resort when all the preventive means had been exhausted. The initial U.S.-led operation achieved its goals of stopping Qaddafi’s forces from recapturing Benghazi and preventing a potential genocide. But a few days into the operations, there was a shift of language towards regime change. This was compounded by NATO’s illegal expansion of UNSCR 1973 on the battlefield. This blurred the full implementation of the Responsibility to Rebuild, the third aspect of R2P.

At the outset, the goal of the military intervention was clear, the protection of civilians and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. President Obama himself reaffirmed that the U.S. would “not go beyond a well-defined goal – specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.” But as the events unfolded, there was a shift in language about the goal of the mission. U.S. officials now attempted to differentiate military from political goals. The political goal was to see Qaddafi step down and the military mission evolved to match the political goal. With NATO taking over, the military mission changed from protecting civilians to regime change. This confusion precipitated the country into an open-ended situation of chaos and desolation. NATO’s intervention achieved the exact opposite of what it was meant to do. It worsened the security situation in the country; destabilized the region; gave rise to civil war, displacement, humanitarian disaster, and safe havens for radical Islamist and terrorist groups both in Libya and neighboring countries including Mali, Niger and Algeria.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.