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Libya and Hawkish Revisionism

Max Boot indulges in some convenient revisionism:

Saturday was the day the State Department ordered the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Libya. Only three years ago, Obama helped NATO allies overthrow Moammar Kadafi as part of his “lead from behind” doctrine, but he has done little to help the resulting democratic government secure its authority.

Not only did the U.S. not support sending international peacekeepers [bold mine-DL], it didn’t mount a serious program to train a new Libyan army.

This is the standard hawkish critique of the Libyan intervention, which pretends that the flaw in the administration’s policy was in being too hands-off after the regime had been toppled. It conveniently omits the fact that the interim Libyan government wanted no part of any foreign stabilization force in late 2011 or early 2012 when it mattered, and ignores that there was no government anywhere interested in filling a peacekeeping role once the old regime fell. The intervening governments were never willing to participate in a significant post-war role, and made that quite clear while the war was still going on. Indeed, it was an essential part of the argument that American interventionists made at the start of the war: there would be no U.S. ground forces deployed to Libya to fight, nor would there be any deployed to a post-Gaddafi Libya. Interventionists don’t get to have the domestic political advantages of avoiding a prolonged occupation while disavowing the consequences of the regime change they supported. Libya is in chaos in large part because outside forces aided anti-regime rebels in destroying the existing government, and the governments that intervened are at least partly responsible for what they have wrought.

It doesn’t follow from this that the solution for Libya was or is to increase the involvement of outside governments in misguided efforts to stabilize the country. Having seen what a “serious program” to train local forces produced in Iraq, it is far from obvious that a more concerted effort by the U.S. to train Libyan government forces would have changed much of anything for the better. Similarly, the presence of foreign troops in Libya would more likely have triggered armed resistance against the new government, which would probably have then turned into another ill-fated attempt at counterinsurgency to shore up an increasingly unpopular government. The Libyan war was a serious blunder, but it was not one that would have been undone by committing more resources and risking more lives.

Boot’s criticism is mostly just another desperate effort to try to deny that military intervention and regime change are primarily to blame for Libya’s current state. This is akin to the arguments we heard from liberal hawks when the conditions began to deteriorate rapidly in Iraq: “yes I supported the invasion, but I don’t agree with how Bush has handled things after that.” They evaded responsibility for their support for the invasion by faulting the Bush administration for its poor management of the war, which presupposed that there was a realistic way to destroy another government without unleashing the chaos and violence that inevitably followed. Boot is much the same: he was all for intervening in Libya, but he doesn’t want the negative consequences of that policy to be linked to the Republican hawks that backed yet another ill-conceived war. One would have thought that the experience of occupying Iraq would put an end to the fantasy that a prolonged foreign military presence in these countries ensured stability and security, but it seems not.

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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