Each day that goes by gives the White House more reason to regret its Libyan adventure. The overthrow of Gaddafi was a good thing, but from both the humanitarian and strategic points of view, nothing has changed. The war continues to look at best like a diversion, at worst as if the US fell for a cynical French ploy to get oil in a way that damaged our long term strategic interests.
Scattered reports of torture in Libyan jails and unrest in Libyan towns are beginning to coalesce into a picture of the exciting new reality created by last year’s humanitarian war-to-protect. If Amnesty International knows what it is talking about, Libyans are being “tortured to death” by the people we saved from Gaddafi and installed in power. Surprisingly, the Wilsonian hawks who gave us this inspiring policy haven’t yet sent a new barrage of airstrikes to stop the new round of brutality and bloodshed.
Meanwhile for Russia, the “lessons of Libya” are clear. Russia’s abstention on the Libya resolution at the UN Security Council extended a mantle of legitimacy over the Libyan bombs; this is now seen as a strategic mistake that must not be repeated over Syria. Russian oil companies have been heavily punished by the new Libyan government which instead rewarded its western backers with fat contracts. Russian arms deliveries to Syria and diplomatic support to the embattled government in Damascus — along with closer alignment with Iran — have been facilitated by Russia’s intense reaction to the Libyan misadventure.
In Russia, the belief that the West cynically uses internal instability as an excuse to replace unfriendly regimes with compliant puppets (often no more “democratic” or “humane” than the previous thugs) has become dogma, and this western propensity is now seen as a national security threat to Russia and the friendly regimes on its frontiers.
Libya didn’t cause this perception, but it has strengthened it, and considerably strengthened Russia’s determination to resist: this week, the Kremlin announced its intention to veto any Security Council resolution calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down.
The NGO activists and groups the humanitarian hawks represent and hope to bolster have also been set back by the war. The perception that the US and the Europeans promote instability and protest in hostile countries and then use those protestors and the resulting instability to advance their interests has been strengthened by Libya and its aftermath. The Egyptian crackdown on NGOs and the current refusal to allow US citizens connected to them to leave is yet another sign that the NGO world of civic activism is going to face more determined government push back around the world. Without advancing the cause of world freedom in any significant way, the Libyan intervention was a wake up call to the forces of darkness, and led them to conclude that while President Obama may be a kinder and gentler face, the Obama administration is no less committed to a project of ideological transformation than the Bush administration was in its first term.
As predicted, the Libyan intervention has strengthened Assad and ensured a longer period of delay and hesitation before any possible intervention in Syria. The tortures taking place in Libyan jails today and the blood flowing in Syrian streets cannot be separated from the humanitarian bombs about which the “duty to protect” crowd rejoiced so naively last spring.
Meanwhile, many analysts agree that the war in Libya, brilliant and strategic though it appeared to the White House at the time, may be making our options regarding Iran more limited. The west made a deal with Gaddafi: stop your nuclear program and we will treat you with respect. He kept his end of the bargain and we dispatched him to his eternal reward. What assurances can we now give the mullahs that would induce them to believe that they will be safe without nukes?
This makes it less likely that President Obama’s approach to Iran, infinitely more important for the future of US foreign policy than anything that has happened or could happen in Libya, will succeed. There is no pledge Obama could give the mullahs that can offer them the same protection that a bomb would give them; the “duty to protect” crowd does not believe it needs to honor any sort of pre-existing pledge to a leader it decides is “bad,” while reserving the right to strike anyone, anywhere, anytime, should a moral mood befall us. For Iran, the lesson of Libya is that the West will tell you anything to get you to give up the quest for nuclear weapons, but none of the beautiful pledges can be trusted. At the first sign of weakness, they will intervene to overthrow you.
Thank goodness the Bush crowd and those awful neocons are gone.
To be fair to the White House, and to the neocons for that matter, American foreign policy is hard. We are doomed to play two incompatible roles in the world. On the one hand, we are a status quo power that wants to keep the world stably operating within a set of legal norms and practical arrangements. We want treaties to be honored, boundaries respected, and disagreements to be settled in peace.
But at the same time, we are an even more revolutionary country today than we were in 1776. The political ideas that form us, and the economic system which makes us strong, are fundamentally at war with the political, economic and even religious ideas that hold sway in much of the world.
There is no perfectly harmonious way to balance the two sides of America’s presence in the world. There is no glitch-free path down which our foreign policy can smoothly glide to untroubled success. Contradictions, mishaps, mixed signals and unintended consequences are an inevitable and irreducible element of American foreign policy even when planned and executed at the highest level, and even a great foreign policy president and secretary of state will have a bumpy ride.
Critics of an administration’s foreign policy often judge its success or failure by the bumpiness of the ride. That’s a mistake. Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy in his second term was pretty smooth, but only because the US sat passively as Nazi Germany, Fascist Japan and Stalin’s USSR cooked up the most dangerous global challenge we have ever faced. Given the state of US public opinion at the time (humanitarian legalists and crackpot isolationists were stinking up the place with bad ideas) there might not have been much FDR could do, but a bumpier foreign policy would have been better for the country.
It should also be remembered that on the whole, even taking misadventures like Vietnam, Iraq and — in its small and low-rent way — Libya, into account, Washington’s failures to act have been much worse for the world (and the US) than even the most misguided steps we have taken. There is reason to argue that in American foreign policy the tie should go to the runner: in a closely balanced situation there is usually a good case for doing something than sitting passively by.
So rather than judging the pilot on the bumpiness of the flight, we should ask some other questions about American foreign policy. One would be the issue of importance: are we putting the most effort and attention behind the most important issues? If we are having trouble, does our distress at least come because we are wrestling with the most important issues of the day?
Here, I think, Libya fails. From any point of view (humanitarian, political, strategic), Syria was more important than Libya in the spring of 2011. It is more important than Libya now. Tripoli was a diversion from Damascus rather than a road to it; whatever our policy was going to be, we should have put more weight on Syria and less on Libya.
Second, there is a question of strategic coherence: can the results we intend be achieved by the initiatives we propose? Here too the Libyan war falls short. This was proposed as a humanitarian war: a war to protect. Such a war must succeed in political terms: its success will be judged on political rather than strategic grounds. Are Libyans better off than they were before Gaddafi fell? Are they safer? Is the country more stable, more cohesive, less oppressive?
Perhaps it will be. I certainly hope so. But this is a goal that we have no way to achieve. It is not in our power to give a good government to the people of Libya. It is not in our power to ensure that the successor to Gaddifi, when and if one emerges, will be better for the Libyans than was the Great Loon. Yet thanks to the circumstances of the war and to the rationale we proposed at the time, our success in Libya will inevitably be judged by an outcome over which we have limited influence and no control.
We can get lucky in Libya if things work out to some kind of acceptable outcome — and I hope we will. But we cannot make our luck: the intervention has made us more vulnerable — not less — to outcomes we have little ability to shape.
A third question would relate to possible gains: what do we get if we win? Do we preserve our existence as a nation in a war of self defense? Do we advance important political or economic interests? Do we nip an emerging threat in the bud? Do we weaken a strategic enemy? Do we advance an important principle of international order and law? Do we prevent a great evil?
Clearly, the Libyan intervention was primarily shaped in response to the last two questions. It was billed as a war to prevent a slaughter and as a war to advance the concept of the duty to protect. It may have achieved the first objective, though by the time all the killing is finished it will be hard to calculate whether more people died in the war to overthrow Gaddafi, the battles to succeed him, and in the prisons of the new regime than might have died if Gaddafi had crushed Benghazi all those months ago.
Far from securing the second objective — advancing the doctrine of the duty to protect — the net effect of the war in Libya is to weaken the hold of that idea both in the US and abroad. This isn’t because we failed in the mission. We failed by succeeding in Libya.
We failed on two fronts. In the first place, we failed because victory took so long to achieve, and that victory has been so dismal and unsatisfying (all that blood in the streets, all those tortured to death in the cells) that it tends to reduce enthusiasm for new ventures of this kind. The next group of humanitarian hawks trying to sell a liberal president on a war of good intentions will have a harder time making the sale than this group did. Far from anchoring a principle in US foreign policy, the Libyan war provides intellectual ammunition for critics of the idea and puts new weapons into the hands of political opponents of such ventures.
Secondly, success in Libya has given new strength to the international opponents of the “duty to protect” idea. The Security Council is less likely to bless further such ventures now. Russia and China will oppose new ventures of this kind with more vigor — and with more support from other countries, including some democratic ones. In world politics today, the duty to protect looks less like an objective principle of law and more like a mask for western interests than it did before the Libyan war.
The war in Libya stopped a probable slaughter. It overthrew a horrible man and liberated a nation from one of the world’s more destructive dictatorships. It reinforced the world’s sense of America’s great military might — though the hesitating manner in which we fought reassured many of our opponents that we are less likely to use that power in decisive ways than we were ten years ago.
But it did not — and, really, could not — advance significant US strategic, economic or political interests. It did not and could not make the world a safer place. It weakened our hand in dealing with both Syria and Iran. And it provided new ammunition to those, at home and abroad, who want to resist the kind of order-building the war was intended to promote. It was a well-intentioned war, but not a good one.
Libya is not the first or the costliest mistake the US has ever made. And it is very far from a total disaster. Gaddafi is gone. Yet we spent money and political capital for a net-negative result and must now deal with much more serious and urgent problems made worse by the “success” of the Libya venture.