Gaddafi has survived five weeks of punishing airstrikes, and his military has not yet betrayed him, as officials in Paris and London were hoping. In a notable display of candor, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe suggested this week that alliance leaders — including his boss, Sarkozy — may have underestimated Gaddafi’s staying power in deciding to go to war.
“When the decision to take action was taken, there was a feeling that, in the wake of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, this would be relatively quick [bold mine-DL],” Danin recalled. “Instead, it is turning out to be a protracted civil war on the ground.” ~The Washington Post
What could the thinking have possibly been here? What happened in Tunisia and Egypt was that in both cases the military refused to attack protesters, and Ben Ali and Mubarak realized that they were not going to be able to hold onto power through the use of force. The states with relatively stronger institutions saw the heads of state depart fairly quickly, which should have been a warning that things would be very different in Libya, where there are no strong institutions. Gaddafi kept the Libyan military institutionally much weaker than in the other countries to prevent coups against him, and some of his armed forces were already showing themselves willing to use force against the opposition. These were all things that these governments could have reasonably been expected to know before they ordered military action. Clearly, they did not know them, or they did not give them enough attention.
It’s impressive that none of the allied governments was able to recall how long the Kosovo campaign lasted. What was supposed to be a few days of bombing turned into two and a half months, and ultimately it was diplomatic pressure to force Milosevic to give up that mattered as much as the bombing. Compared to Kosovo, the U.S., Britain, and France have effectively committed themselves to achieving a much more ambitious goal (Gaddafi’s removal from power) with less of a political consensus in support of that goal, more limited resources, and more restrictions on what they can do. As in 1999, they assumed that the targeted regime would capitulate almost immediately, and somehow never considered that the regime they were attacking might actually be able to consolidate its strength because it was being attacked. Over the short term, Milosevic was able to draw on the shared, genuine outrage of Serbs on account of the bombing*. It was only later on, long after the bombs had stopped falling, that his political opponents were able to organize effectively against him.
Like almost every other stupid interventionist project of the last twenty years, the Libyan war was founded on the assumption that attacking another country would drive the population to turn against the government instead of realizing that the completely normal, human reaction of the majority of every nation on the planet is to resent foreign attacks and usually to defer to the government in an emergency. This is what we would do, and it is as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning, but for some reason we have to go through the same exercise of overconfident miscalculation, puzzlement, and then the dawning realization that bad and unjust governments don’t automatically collapse simply because we wish they would. Perhaps next time, if there must be a next time, our government should come up with a plan that doesn’t rely so heavily on the willingness of regime loyalists to commit the equivalent of treason.
* Humanitarian interventionists have had the uncanny ability to select countries to attack for their wars of choice that have deep, painful memories of being attacked by Nazi Germany and occupied and oppressed by Fascist Italy respectively. Of all the peoples in the world that might turn on their respective governments as a result of foreign attack, humanitarian interventionists have chosen two of the least likely, and then they profess surprise when the nations in question didn’t respond as they were expected to respond. It’s as if the interventionists think that it matters to the people being bombed that they aren’t being bombed in the name of conquest and empire-building. These nations don’t really know that when it’s happening, it certainly doesn’t feel like it at the time, and they aren’t likely to believe Western claims to the contrary.