The American Interest

Lessons of Libya

Liberal interventionists and their neoconservative twins on both sides of the Atlantic were jubilant as Libyan rebels took Tripoli.  From now on, “The right question for the United States and its allies isn’t whether to help oppressed people fight for freedom, it’s when,” declared the Washington Post on August 24.  The answer to that question is right now, opined former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who wishes to effect regime change in Syria.  According to Lord David Owen, former British foreign secretary, “We have proved in Libya that intervention can still work,” and a precedent for the future is now set.  “Who, today, does not thrill to the spectacle of freedom in Tripoli?” Fouad Ajami enthused in the Wall Street Journal.

The spectacle in the streets of Tripoli was no more thrilling than that of young men brandishing Kalashnikovs, flashing V-signs, and smashing kitschy statues anywhere else in the world; and thrill is a poor substitute for policy.  As the dust settles, the fruits of the Libyan intervention are likely to prove detrimental to the American interest and harmful to regional stability.  As Afghanistan and Iraq indicate, it is far easier to defeat a regime in the field than it is to stabilize a country and make it governable in accordance with the wishes of a distant intervening power.  The claim of “success” in...

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