It is a good thing that Moammar Qaddafi is gone, even if by barbaric means. So what did we learn from the 2011 misadventure, given that some are advocating much the same sort of action against Syria and Iran? Answer: Not much.
1. Small is easy. The bombing of Libya was billed as an idealistic effort to free an oppressed people from a tyrant. But the decision to take action was largely predicated on realist assumptions: that Libya was small and weak, and Qaddafi easily targeted — unlike Iraq and Saddam or Syria and Assad. We will not repeat the Libyan paradigm in Syria, not because Assad is not a tyrant or his people are not treated brutally, but because military intervention in a much larger and more volatile Syria would not be so easy. There need be no apologies about picking and choosing easy targets; but we suffer the wages of hypocrisy when we claim that the Libyan action was reflective of our overriding idealism about promoting systematic democratic liberation from tyrants. When one looks back at the operations in Iraq versus those in Libya, the difference was not morality, but the relative ease of the latter in simply removing a dictator, and the difficulty in the former of staying on to foster democracy.
2. The U.N. Libya was the first war since Korea in which an American administration had obtained some sort of authorization from the U.N. but not from the U.S. Congress. Strangely enough, Libya is often offered as a blueprint for U.N. internationalism. But the very opposite is more likely true: It is a guide for nothing, and won’t be repeated. We obtained resolutions to enforce an irrelevant no-fly zone and to offer humanitarian aid — period. We soon found both resolutions mostly immaterial to conditions on the ground, and therefore quickly praised the U.N. as much as we violated its resolutions by waging a bombing campaign. Russia immediately objected and has since conveniently cited Libya repeatedly for its later reluctance to join in a resolution against Iran or Syria. In most cases, the U.N. will not offer resolutions to remove a monster, and to the degree that it might, the resulting authorizations will upon trial prove irrelevant. Those who champion U.N. intervention usually must end up subverting it and thus do more damage to the U.N. than those who acknowledge its limitations up front. If one is disingenuous, and if one understands that there is only one chance at practicing such duplicity on the U.N., it would have been better to have snookered Russia and China on Syria or Iran rather than on Libya.
3. Lead from behind? In theory, supplying the wherewithal to remove Qaddafi while denying just that fact offered a few quirky advantages. Our NATO allies liked the façade of appearing as major military players, while we avoided knee-jerk anti-Americanism. It is hard to ignore the natural law that the strongest military usually exercises the greatest postwar influence. But we did not exercise such influence, and we now learn that our interests may not be the same as those whom we led from behind. We had few oil and gas interests in Libya, at least in comparison to France and Britain. As in the Lockerbie bomber’s repatriation, our anti-terrorism interests are not always identical with those of our allies. The result was confusion both at home and abroad. To this day, the American public does not know the degree to which American supplies and planes led to Qaddafi’s removal. It does not understand the logic of using NATO allies as fig leaves. And the cute phrase “lead from behind” not only is an oxymoron, but cannot be repeated with Syria or Iran. In short, outsourcing high-profile air power to our allies works only when the enemy has no air force.
4. Democracy-building. After Afghanistan and Iraq, few any more wish to insert ground troops among tribal societies following the removal of a dictatorship. So it is understandable that shepherding a “Libyan democracy” into being is judged not worth the bones of a single American Marine. That said, there is also unfortunately a rough law formulated over the last seven decades from our experience in Afghanistan, Germany, Grenada, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Panama, Serbia, and South Korea: If the U.S. wants some influence over a postwar government, then it must have troops on the ground when the shooting stops. True, we bombed Milošević out of power, but we then learned we had to come down to earth and monitor what followed. If we do not do so, then what ensues is usually as bad as or worse than what was removed. Libya has descended into tribal chaos, the random murdering of black Africans, and score-settling with former regime insiders. For now the chief difference from the Qaddafi years is that the violence is nascent, escalating, and unscripted rather than old, customary, and carefully planned. There was never any plan to use NATO troops to keep the peace in postwar Libya and legitimize an interim government, and therefore there is little chance that any government might emerge of a sort that we would favor or the people would find humane.
5. Reformist dictators? It is better to take out an unrepentant dictator rather than one who claims to be reforming. Timing is everything. There were good reasons to consider removing Qaddafi through much of the last 40 years, but less convincing ones in spring 2011, given his loud outreach to Europe and his children’s supposed Westernization and plans for gradual reform. At least in the case of Saddam Hussein, there was no hint in his last year of any remorse or interest in reform; in contrast, with both Qaddafi and Assad, Westerners had been assuring us that they were reforming or liberalizing, which made their sudden demonization less convincing. When one day Harvard professors are writing that change is coming to Libya and on the next we are dropping bombs on Qaddafi’s compound, skepticism is warranted. When the Obama administration reopens a long-closed embassy in Damascus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assures us that Assad is a “reformer,” then it is harder a few weeks later to regard him as the monster he always was.
In conclusion, there are not any very good American choices for stopping Iran’s planned bomb or removing the odious Assad. But the Libyan model offers no choice at all.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.