It also strains credulity for Mead to suggest that it was somehow a (non-existent) Libyan war fatigue that stayed the administration’s hand in Syria and not the objectively different circumstances at play. Syria was (and is) a tougher nut to crack: the costs of intervention are significantly higher than in Libya. Syria has more great power support than Libya did and the regime has a much more robust defense establishment than Libya.
But what makes Mead’s argument all the more untenable is that he accurately describes the history of U.S. intervention in the Mideast as misguided and more often producing negative consequences, then suggests that the U.S. should nonetheless “do more” in Syria so that things would be better
Mead’s argument regarding Libya and Syria is bizarre for the simple reason that he endorses the wrongheaded assumptions that some form of U.S.-led or U.S.-backed intervention in Syria could have significantly alleviated the civilian population’s suffering and that the U.S. would have been advancing its interests in so doing. While Mead has been largely correct about the destructive and destabilizing consequences of the Libyan war, he seems to think that the same thing would not have occurred in Syria and the countries surrounding it. “Humanitarian” intervention in Libya has had disastrous consequences, most of all for Mali and its neighbors, but one can hardly fault the advocates of the Libyan war when the U.S. does not intervene directly in a different conflict that it has been keeping at arm’s length for almost two years. Intervening in Libya was unwise and reckless. Not repeating that mistake in Syria isn’t a failing on the part of the administration. It suggests that they are not out of their minds.
Mead’s opposition of “humanitarian” idealists and “selfish” realists doesn’t hold up in this instance for an important reason: “selfish” realists don’t want the U.S. involved in Syria, either. There is nothing more “selfish” about intervening in Syria than doing so in Libya. The U.S. has/had nothing at stake in either conflict. Doing “more” in Syria wouldn’t have been “selfish” for the U.S. It would have been, and still would be, incredibly foolish.
And by choosing to intervene in Libya while making lots of empty boasts and vain noises about our commitment to universal human rights and principles, we encouraged the Syrians to believe we would help them at the same time we made help less likely.
One of the unintended consequences that I feared the Libyan war would have was just this sort of irresponsible encouragement of other rebellions that the U.S. wouldn’t or couldn’t help, but I have to acknowledge that this hasn’t happened yet. When the Libyan war was happening, the administration made it very plain that the intervention in Libya was not at all likely to be repeated. Of course, this made a mockery of many of the arguments that were made in support of the intervention (e.g., that intervention would deter crackdowns elsewhere, encourage opposition movements, restore America’s image in the region, etc.), but so far it appears that Libya may have been the “last hurrah” of Western interventionism, at least for a while.
The truth is that the Syrian uprising was beginning at the same time as the rebellion in Libya, it turned into an armed struggle as regime brutality and outside arms and supplies for the opposition increased, and it kept escalating long after it was obvious to everyone that the U.S. and NATO would have no part in the conflict. If anyone expected the U.S. and NATO to launch a war against Syria because they intervened in Libya, he wasn’t paying attention. Similarly, there’s no reason to think that an administration that refused to intervene in Libya would have been remotely interested in “doing more” in Syria.