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Demonstration Effects

Shadi Hamid cites the importance of the Libyan war’s demonstration effect:

Finally, it is worth noting that one of the rationales for the Libya intervention — that it would have a powerful demonstration effect across the Arab world — is being vindicated (after being much maligned by Daniel Larison and others critics of the war). In the face of overwhelming repression in Syria and Bahrain and setbacks in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, Arabs needed a victory. There was a growing sense that the euphoria on February 11 — the day Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down — was rather premature. It was. But, now, all across the region, protesters and revolutionaries are once again emboldened, reminded that the unlikely is still possible.

The danger here is that emboldening protesters in the absence of any prospect of outside backing is just the sort of irresponsible thing that “rollback” advocates did in Hungary and the first Bush administration did in southern Iraq after the Gulf War. The scandal of American inaction in those cases was that Washington had led people to believe that the U.S. would side with them if they rose up. However, our government had no intention of doing this. That empty promise of support prompted them to take risks that they would probably never have taken without this encouragement, and they suffered greatly because of it. Outside intervention in Libya has always had the potential to mislead other protest movements into expecting direct backing from the U.S. and other governments. It might also conceivably encourage protest movements that the best way to gain outside backing is to provoke harsh crackdowns by taking up arms. Viewed this way, it is not an entirely good thing that protesters and revolutionaries are emboldened. Of all the supposed demonstration effects that the Libyan intervention was supposed to have, this is the one that I have rarely discussed.

The “demonstration effect across the Arab world” that I “maligned” the most was the notion that intervention in Libya would have a deterrent effect on other authoritarian governments. As Marc Lynch put it:

One of the strongest reasons to intervene in Libya is the argument that the course of events there will influence the decisions of other despots about the use of force.

The course of events in Libya so far has not influenced the decisions of other rulers for the better. Unless other rulers believed that they would face the same intervention by outside powers, it never made much sense why it would:

Suppose that a Libyan war sends a very different message from the one that its supporters want to send. Instead of sending a message to authoritarian governments around the world that they must not use violence against protesters, suppose that it sends the message that authoritarian rulers need to clamp down even more right now and react even more violently when protests erupt.

The other demonstration effect that Libya was supposed to have was to improve the reputation of the U.S. by aligning America with an Arab protest movement. Apparently, Obama’s handling of Libya has not done that, and may have had the opposite effect.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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