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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lessons of Libya

It should come as no surprise to anyone who lives in Washington -- or follows the policy debates here -- that what lessons policy makers should draw from the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya depend on who you ask.

Is it a victory for Western interventionism, the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, and all the rest? Or a defeat -- ultimately -- for the whole paradigm? A validation of Barack Obama's so-called "leading from behind" strategy of foreign engagement? Or a success despite Obama's lack of assertiveness? The debate has only grown more fierce since Tripoli's fall last month.

Liberals like Nick Kristof seized the NATO-backed rebels' victory over Muammar el-Qaddafi as affirmation the U.S. decision to commit American forces.
"The question of humanitarian intervention is one of the knottiest in foreign policy, and it will arise again. The next time it does, let’s remember a lesson of Libya: It is better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none."
CNN's Fareed Zakari also saw it as validation for Obama -- but for his process it followed more than the specifics of his Libya policy.
"The Libya intervention is so significant precisely because it did not follow the traditional pattern of U.S.-led interventions. Indeed, it launched a new era in U.S. foreign policy."
That would be an era of "limited intervention," according to Zakaria.
"The question before Libya was: Could such interventions be successful while keeping costs under control - both human and financial.
Today's answer is: Yes."
On the flip side you have folks like the Cato Institute's Doug Bandow who argue that the long term impacts of the rebel victory in Libya will be a net defeat for the U.S. - it will discourage other nations from giving up their WMD stockpiles and from cooperating on vaguely worded humanitarian missions at the United Nations, not to mention create a power vacuum in North Africa where Islamists, terrorists and arms traffickers can thrive.

The best take I've read so far on the lessons of Libya is from Stephen M. Walt, who brings much of the pie-in-the-sky prognosticating back to earth with one simple fact - we simply don't know yet what the post-Qaddafi Libya will become.
"Even if Qaddafi set a very low standard for effective or just governance, the end-result of his ouster may not be as gratifying as we hope. More importantly, we also ought to guard against the common tendency to draw big policy conclusions from a single case, especially when we don't have good theories to help us understand the differences between different outcomes," Walt writes.
Then, social scientist that he is, Walt lays out a set of questions to help evaluate Libya's development from here, and how it fits into the broader pantheon of revolutions assisted from outside.

Stop, think, observe before drawing conclusions? What a refreshing idea.

As an aside -- one entity that has not contributed at all to the Libya post-mortem ($) is Congress, which has cemented more than ever its impotency when it comes to decisions to use military force.

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