But another lesson is that thinking in terms of narrative satisfaction can blind us to the reality of conditions that will actually determine the outcome. Just because it would be a lot more satisfying, emotionally, for the next “beat” to be for Qaddafi to fall, doesn’t mean that’s the beat we’re going to get. And if we “force” a re-write, we’re in a whole new story altogether.
Something else we saw in the Libyan war that crops up again and again in our policy debates is the tendency that many policymakers and politicians have to believe our own propaganda or the propaganda of “our” side in a foreign conflict without asking very many questions. In the Libyan case, this involved attributing to anti-regime forces the “values” that Americans wanted to believe that they had, and it meant investing the conflict in Libya with far greater global significance than it actually possessed. The notion that the fate of the “Arab Spring” hinged on whether or not the U.S. and its allies intervened in Libya was a highly speculative, unfounded assumption. Interventionists exaggerated the importance of the conflict to the wider region in order to make an intervention seem more worthwhile. The earlier assumption that the “Arab Spring” was something that the U.S. ought to be encouraging went unexamined, once again because our “values” dictated that Washington must do this.
Inside the administration, the idea that a Libyan intervention would allow the U.S. “to realign our interests and our values” was reportedly a significant factor in the decision to take military action. Thus one faulty assumption (that our “values” were at stake) led to another (we must “realign our values and our interests”) and that led to a terrible decision. The supposed popularity of outside intervention was touted as an opportunity for the U.S. to get on the good side of the nations in the region, but this was always very likely to be a terrible miscalculation. Sending “signals” to other audiences via military action is almost always misguided and futile: the message that you intend to convey isn’t necessarily the one that is received, and sometimes the action is interpreted in a way that you never anticipated. As it turned out, U.S. intervention in Libya was unpopular throughout the region because most people in these countries don’t trust the U.S. and resent our government’s interference no matter which side Washington chooses to take. The belief that the U.S. can ever earn goodwill by bombing another country and destroying its government is one that should have died in 2003, but unfortunately it is one that persists and continues to misinform our debates about Syria and Iran, and will probably have pernicious effects in more debates in the future.
One more lesson that the Libyan war should teach us is that the U.S. and its allies are far too quick to want to take sides in foreign disputes and conflicts, and they are then far too eager to throw their weight behind that side in order to make sure that “our” side wins. The impulse to “do something” is matched in intensity and evil effects only by the instinct to take sides. We should be able to recognize that in some conflicts the U.S. has no side to support and often has little or nothing at stake in the outcome of the struggle. That ought to put the U.S. in a position where it can serve as a neutral mediator to find a way to resolve the conflict without further bloodshed. Instead the U.S. too often chooses to pick a side and helps to intensify and escalate conflicts that might be limited and contained through mediation.