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Ross Douthat Crashes the Libyan Afterparty

In a column this week for the New York Times, Ross Douthat echoes a theme we’ve been developing at Via Meadia for some time: that the bloody unintended consequences of our Libyan humanitarian intervention–from a civil war in Mali to a rise in Islamic radicalism in the region–should give pause to the “Right to Protect” crowd and their righteous rhetoric. Writes Douthat:

[A]t the very least, the intimate connection between the two civil wars should complicate the Libya hawks’ easy moralism. If interventionists want to claim credit for saving lives in Benghazi, they need to acknowledge that their choices may have ended up costing lives in Timbuktu. If they want to point to the immediate consequences of the Libyan war as vindication for a “responsibility to protect” doctrine, they need to acknowledge the second-order consequences for people who will never have the benefits of our protection.

From a strategic perspective, too, toppling a dictator in one country looks rather less impressive if his fall helps give rise to a theocracy nearby. Mali may seem strategically inconsequential today, but so did Afghanistan when the Taliban first swept to power.

Read the whole thing to remind yourself why–pace the pundits–there are no easy choices in foreign policy. As Douthat concludes:

The goal of the Obama White House throughout our Libyan quasi war was to keep our intervention as limited as possible. In this, it largely succeeded. But just because our involvement was limited does not mean that the long-term consequences will be limited as well. War has a life of its own: insurgencies spread, weapons intended for one cause end up in the service of another, and turmoil is rarely contained by lines drawn on a map.

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  • John Burke

    This provides an opportunity to state what is the obvious “lesson” to be drawn from the past 20 years of developments in Afghanistan, as opposed to the various “lessons” debated zealously in our government and media (eg, that we “abandoned” Afghanistan prematurely in the early 90s; that Bush “took his eyes off Afganistan” in 2003 to pursue the Iraq adventure; etc.

    The obvious lesson is that the smart and determined use of modest resources, mostly those of the covert kind wielded by CIA but also some at the diplomatic or political level, could have kept the Taliban from siezing power in Kabul, or denied al Qaeda its Afghan
    sanctuary, or knocked off bin Laden well before he had acquired either substantial operational resources or eminence among radical Islamists.

    Some modest financial and logistical assistance to Ahmed Massoud and other anti-Taliban mujahideen through the 90s might well have been enough to thwart the Taliban (and their Pakistani sponsors). Even if the Taliban had not been defeated, denying it outright control would have made its ability to offer UBL safe refuge after he was driven out of Khartoum unlikely. And of course, as documented by the 9/11 Commission, CIA plots to kill or capture bin Laden were rejected at least three times up to 2000 (Michael Scheuer, head of CIA’s “bin Laden unit” during much of that time, claims that the Agency had 13, not 3, shots at UBL which it was not permitted to take, but he may have an overly optimistic count).

    How to apply this lesson to current developments? Mali offers one example. Tuareg rebels who teamed up with al Qaeda to oppose government forces can be supplied and paid handsomely to turn their guns on the Islamists and negotiate with the government (or the army). There may be other and better tactics, but the key is to move swiftly and covertly (which mostly means these days, deniable in diplospeak).

    Where eyes were off the ball in recent years was in Yemen where AQAP has rapidly gained dominance — not just a foothold — in whole provinces, while we were all preoccupied elsewhere. Our (somewhat belated) response there is occasional drone attacks. While all well and good, AQAP can only be defeated by aggressive local action (as the Saudis took in 2002-03 to very little notice when AQAP launched post-9/11 operations designed to destabilize that country and were met by a ruthlessly thorough campaign to crush them). How to make this happen in Yemen? I don’t pretend to know, but it is a question that deserves a lot more attention.

  • JM Hanes

    The LIbyan misadventure is less a cautionary tale on humanitarian intervention, per se, than on “kinetic activity” both generated and shaped by domestic political concerns, for explicitly short term objectives, in the context of strategically incoherent foreign policy — a cake iced with demonstrably hypocritical rhetoric, which makes a moral case for forcibly preempting a potential massacre in one country, while greeting certifiable slaughter in another with generic expressions of disapproval.

    Anyone who touts Libya as a great success certainly deserves a full measure of scorn, but what’s emblematic here is not the “bloody unintended consequences,” it’s that Obama’s utterly myopic, ad hoc, self-referential approach to everything in the international arena has had almost entirely predictable results.

  • Anthony

    There’s little to be added after comments 1&2 beyond noting that Adam Garfinke gave advance indication to complicated consequences post Libyan intervention.

  • rkka

    I think we should put intervention-mongers like Susan Rice, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain on ” ignore”

  • James C Brown

    By the looks of the news reports from European media last year, notably French, one would’ve gotten the impression that the US didn’t play that big a role in the overthrow of Khadafy. That it was basically a French & British operation.
    I think it was the right choice to take out Khadafy. He was a wild, scorned, mad man and the risk was that if he remained alive he would bomb another civilian passenger airline just as he had done with the plane that blew up over Lockerbie in 1988. The French & the British wronged him for having sided with the national council forces. He was a mad dog. He had to be taken out. This wasn’t the case that was made by the French government, but it was going on in my head last year.

  • thibaud

    “the bloody unintended consequences ”

    Oy! Watch yer mouth, mate.

  • Felipe Pait

    I come to this blog expecting something better than armchair analysis by Ross Douthat. That is not a high standard. Please don’t disappoint me again.

  • Kris

    “the bloody unintended consequences”

    For the love of Pete, not another post about circumcision!

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