Yes, the Syria crisis does, as is often noted, illustrate the greatest of the many follies associated with the frustrating saga of Western intervention in Libya. That is, of course, that by intervening in Libya ineffectively, we have now made it impossible for anyone to believe we will intervene anywhere else, even when, as in Syria’s case, more credible threats of punishing Assad would have been helpful arrows to have in our quiver. ~David Rothkopf

This puts far too much importance on the execution of the Libyan war. Like the already tiresome criticism of “leading from behind,” it assumes that if only the policy in question had been implemented more “effectively” it would be yielding much better results. Missing from this is any consideration of the real political constraints that limited how the Libyan war would be fought. The ineffectiveness of the Libyan war was to some extent guaranteed as soon as the allies adopted quite limited means to achieve maximalist goals. There is also no consideration that even greater constraints would have applied in the Syrian case. Perhaps most important, Rothkopf neglects that it is the pursuit of regime change in Libya itself that has made any U.N. action on Syria difficult if not impossible. That the U.S. and its allies have badly mismatched their goal and the means available to achieve it doesn’t help, but it isn’t the main problem. As many Security Council members see it, the Libyan war long ago exceeded the U.N. mandate in Libya, and they are wary of traveling down the same road again in a country that everyone acknowledges to be more strategically significant and potentially much more destabilizing to the region if the regime collapses.

When the Libyan intervention began, the administration went out of its way to state publicly that it was a one-time thing. The conditions that made a U.N.-sanctioned, Arab League-approved Libyan intervention possible did not and never would apply in Syria. For all the talk in favor of or against Libya setting a precedent for humanitarian intervention in the future, the intervening governments made it clear early on that they were not going to apply this precedent elsewhere anytime soon. Saying this publicly was probably a mistake, since it removed all ambiguity about what the Western response would be in Syria, but it was something that the administration in particular felt obliged to say to counter critics who feared that Libya would mark the beginning of a new round of interventions wherever an authoritarian government cracked down on its opposition. In the end, Western governments could not have made credible threats to “punish” Assad with military action. Intervening in Libya has created some additional obstacles to any coordinated response to the Syrian crackdown, but the major obstacles to military action would have been there either way.

Earlier in the post, Rothkopf writes:

The cost of this double standard is painfully apparent today. Just look at the headlines. In Syria, all America can do is make earnest but impotent shows of solidarity with opposition leaders and search for new adjectives to add to our denunciations of the illegitimate Assad regime. But because of our double standard, because of the fact that we dare not call out the Arab nations we have supported for so long at such a high cost, because we can’t count on them as our allies to do the right thing and add pressure on Assad to go, we are forced to treat this grave humanitarian crisis as though it were happening on the moon, far from any real ability of us to influence it.

Suppose that Washington did “call out” other Arab governments. That would get rid of the double standard, but it wouldn’t enhance the government’s ability to influence events in Syria one bit. The failure to “call out” these governments in the past did not prevent their support for Western intervention in Libya, because their support for the Libyan rebel cause was entirely opportunistic and directed against a leader they all loathed. Getting rid of the double standard and criticizing Arab allied governments in the same terms usually reserved for Assad or Gaddafi would not make them more willing to support action against Syria. If the U.S. were more consistent in its denunciations, it would simply leave the U.S. with more alienated or former allies, and its “earnest but impotent shows of solidarity” would be multiplied many times over.