The recent bloodless (referring to American blood — the most important to U.S. policymakers) overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya has been touted as a low-cost model for future U.S. military interventions. The recent Libyan election is said to have vindicated America’s “leadership from the rear” strategy — supporting indigenous armies on the ground and allied air forces with key items such as air-defense suppression, intelligence, and logistics. Yet U.S. military assistance to the rebellion in Libya is having unintended ill effects, much as have past U.S. interventions.
In 1953, the United States and Britain overthrew the democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh, who threatened Western oil interests, and replaced him with the autocratic shah. Instead of worrying about Iran’s economic development, the shah used his oil profits to buy huge quantities of American weapons. Such neglect of his people got him overthrown by radical Islamists in the late 1970s. Iraq’s Sunni ruler, Saddam Hussein, was threatened by Iran’s new Shi’ite revolutionary government and believed it to be weak. Saddam invaded Iran in 1980 and was helped by the United States and other Western powers, who were also threatened by the Islamist Iran. With such Western assistance, Iraq won the war in 1988 and became the dominant power in the region. Saddam then invaded neighboring Kuwait, leading to two wars with the United States, including a U.S. invasion and costly war against recalcitrant guerrillas. In the process, the United States shattered the Iraqi government and army, thereby severely weakening the only force balancing Iran in the region. Thus, U.S. policy over a 60-year period built up a future foe, made it hostile, and then inadvertently strengthened it. In addition, in the absence of a strong leader, Iraq, an artificial country containing three major quarreling ethno-sectarian groups, may yet fall back into civil war.
In Afghanistan, in what seemed like a great way to “give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam,” the United States, during the Cold War in the 1980s, provided many weapons to the Sunni Islamist Afghan mujahedeen, who eventually kicked out Soviet invasion forces. This seeming success then backfired as a subsequent Afghan civil war resulted in victory by a brutal radical Islamic movement called the Taliban. The former mujahedeen also morphed into al-Qaeda, which was sheltered by the Taliban and became the most severe threat to the U.S. homeland since the British invasion during the War of 1812. Thus, after al-Qaeda attacked the United States on 9/11, the United States not only decided to take out al-Qaeda, but also opted — ignoring three British failed invasions of Afghanistan and the aforementioned Soviet debacle — to once again invade, occupy, and try to remodel that country. It failed miserably and is now trying to extricate itself gracefully from the quagmire. In addition, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has destabilized Pakistan by fueling rising Islamist militancy and creating a new insurgency — the Pakistani Taliban — that now threatens the nuclear-armed government of Pakistan.
As these past examples indicate, when the dogs of American intervention are unleashed, we don’t know where they’ll end up. In Libya, after Gadhafi’s fall, there are armed militias galore, tribal friction, and tensions between the oil-rich east and more populous west. Gadhafi had many weapons caches and many of those arms, along with fighters from Libya, have ended up in more populous neighboring Mali. Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have taken over the cities of northern Mali. Thus, a “humanitarian” intervention in Libya to save lives may indirectly result in more lives being lost in an escalating civil war in Mali.
And the perceived success of the Libyan episode has emboldened breakaway factions in other countries and encouraged them to attempt to attract Western military interventions. In the end, this could lead to even more deaths. For example, in Syria, peaceful protests have morphed into a violent rebellion, which is trying to put pressure on the United States to intervene.
President Barack Obama, in an election year, is now trying to avoid a much riskier military intervention in Syria. But in this effort, the ghosts of Libya are haunting his efforts. Russia, Syria’s principal ally, was burned by the United States in the U.N. Security Council during the Libyan intervention. The Russians and Chinese acquiesced to a Security Council resolution to create and enforce a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians. Under this cover, the United States and its Western allies expanded the mission to include overthrowing Gadhafi. As a result, Russia has been reluctant to support any resolution or behind-the scenes agreement that demands that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad should leave power. Russia has supported Assad and has not pressured him to leave, not so much because it sells him weapons or because it has a pathetically small naval station in Syria, but does so as a pushback to U.S. meddling in conflicts around the world.
In conclusion, those who advocate using the Libyan episode as a future model for U.S. intervention, especially in Syria, have overlooked its harmful unintended consequences.