Five years ago, in the darkest days of insurgent violence and Sunni-Shia strife, it seemed as if the Iraq war would shadow American foreign policy for decades, frightening a generation’s worth of statesmen away from using military force. Where there had once been a “Vietnam syndrome,” now there would be an “Iraq syndrome,” inspiring harrowing flashbacks to Baghdad and Falluja in any American politician contemplating an intervention overseas.
But in today’s Washington, no such syndrome is in evidence. Indeed, it’s striking how quickly the bipartisan coalition that backed the Iraq invasion has reassembled itself to urge President Obama to use military force against Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The Iraq war became known as George W. Bush’s war after Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction didn’t turn up, because at that point no liberal wanted to take responsibility for the conflict. But the initial invasion was supported by Democrats as well as Republicans, liberal internationalists as well as neoconservatives — Hillary Clinton as well as John McCain, The New Republic as well as The Weekly Standard.
Now a similar chorus is arguing that the United States should intervene
directly in Libya’s civil war: with a no-flight zone, certainly, and perhaps with arms for the Libyan rebels and air strikes against Qaddafi’s military as well. As in 2002 and 2003, the case
for intervention is being pushed by a broad cross-section of politicians and opinion-makers, from Bill Clinton to Bill Kristol, Fareed Zakaria to Newt Gingrich, John Kerry to Christopher Hitchens.
The justifications for military action, too, echo many of the arguments marshaled for toppling Saddam Hussein. America’s credibility is on the line. The Libyan people deserve our support. Deposing Qaddafi will strike a blow for democracy and human rights.
It’s a testament to the resilience of American power that we’re hearing these kind of arguments so soon after the bloodiest years of the Iraq war. It’s also a testament to the achievements of the American military: absent the successes of the 2007 troop surge, we’d probably be too busy extricating ourselves from a war-torn Iraq to even contemplate another military intervention in a Muslim nation.
But that resilience and those achievements may have set a trap for us, by encouraging the American leadership class to draw relatively narrow lessons from the Iraq war — lessons that only apply to wars premised on faulty W.M.D. intelligence, or wars led by Donald Rumsfeld.
In reality, there are lessons from our years of failure in Iraq that can be applied to an air war over Libya as easily as to a full-scale invasion or counterinsurgency. Indeed, they can be applied to any intervention — however limited its aims, multilateral its means, and competent its commanders.
One is that the United States shouldn’t go to war unless it has a plan not only for the initial military action, but also for the day afterward, and the day after that. Another is that the United States shouldn’t go to war without a detailed understanding of the country we’re entering, and the forces we’re likely to empower.
Moreover, even with the best-laid plans, warfare is always a uniquely high-risk enterprise — which means that the burden of proof should generally rest with hawks rather than with doves, and seven reasonable-sounding reasons for intervening may not add up to a single convincing case for war.
Advocates of a Libyan intervention don’t seem to have internalized these lessons. They have rallied around a no-flight zone as their Plan A for toppling Qaddafi, but most military analysts seem to think that it will fail to do the job, and there’s no consensus on Plan B. Would we escalate to air strikes? Arm the rebels? Sit back and let Qaddafi claim to have outlasted us?
If we did supply the rebels, who exactly would be receiving our money and munitions? Libya’s internal politics are opaque, to put it mildly. But here’s one disquieting data point, courtesy of the Center for a New American Security’s : Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region in the Arab world.
And if the civil war dragged on, what then? Twice in the last two decades, in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, the United States has helped impose a no-flight zone. In both cases, it was just a stepping-stone to further escalation: bombing campaigns, invasion, occupation and nation-building.
None of this means that an intervention is never the wisest course of action. But the strategic logic needs to be compelling, the threat to our national interest obvious, the case for war airtight.
With Libya, that case has not yet been made.
*Published in the NEW YORK TIMES on March 13, 2011.