I want to commend Daniel Larison for continuing to talk about the Libyan war, which should, by rights, be pretty central to any discussion of our current foreign policy. I just wanted to add a quick 2 cents, because the Libyan war is the paradigm case of the “assist the tides of history” theory of foreign policy that Larison has written about before, and that still holds way too much sway out there in policymaker land.

We should remember the context of the Libyan war. The Arab Spring had sprung. Dictators from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond were gone or were being pressured to leave. But by and large these were strongmen who ruled friendly Arab countries. Were we really going to sit back and let our friends get overthrown, while we let our enemies stay in power by brute force? No, we weren’t. (As well, the Libyan war originated as an Anglo-French project. Were we really going to demand they help us with our democracy-promoting wars, but refuse to help them with theirs? No, we weren’t.)

So we gave a little assistance to the “tides of history.” We made sure that Qaddafi fell, and we hinted that Assad would have to fall as well (though we really hoped we wouldn’t have to do anything to make that actually happen).

It turned out, though, that what mattered most for the trajectory of these post-revolutionary states was the internal condition of the country in question. Tunisia turned out pretty well, perhaps vindicating those who point to its higher per-capital GDP, perhaps vindicating those who point to the relative weakness of Islamist groups in the country, and I’m sure there are other theories. Egypt, though, slid back into a dictatorship comparable to the pre-revolutionary situation except even more obvious in its military character. Libya, meanwhile, problematic from the beginning, now seems to be slipping towards outright chaos.

To extend the nautical metaphor perhaps too far: the tide came in, and some boats caught it. Others didn’t. We pushed some out into the water to “help” them catch the tide. Of those, the ones that caught it were the ones that already had capable crews. The ones that didn’t – sank.

Back during the 2012 Presidential campaign, I wrote about another aquatic metaphor for foreign policy, and talked about “surfing” the “tides” of history, rather than trying to control them:

President Obama and Mitt Romney both assume that America is invested in events around the world, and in the Middle East in particular. But they understand that investment differently.

President Obama understands America’s centrality as an inescapable fact that, while valuable, imposes on America unique burdens. Sometimes those burdens are burdens of action, and sometimes they are burdens of restraint. President Obama is not really interested in reducing that burden – as, say, a Rand Paul would be. But he’s interested in managing it well, and maintaining American centrality (hegemony, if you prefer) by means of good management.

What does that mean for the Arab Spring/Islamist Awakening? Not any one thing, as should be clear from Obama’s record so far, which includes declining to get involved in the Tunisian revolution, trying to ease Mubarak out of office without abandoning the Egyptian military, isolating but refusing to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and actively intervening on the side of the rebels in Libya. That pattern, to me, suggests a man trying to get on the “right side” of events more than trying to dictate them. That’s not intended to be a criticism – it’s a description. King Canute was not particularly wise to try to dictate to the ocean rather than getting on the right side of the tide.

I believe Obama views the so-called Arab Spring as driven by the internal currents of the Arab world, and not something America can control. Given America’s inescapable centrality, however, those currents can’t simply be ignored, which means we have to surf those unpredictable waves as best one can, so as to keep our own interests afloat. Inevitably, sometimes we’re going to get wet doing so.

I stand by much of that description, but it’s far more clear to me now than it was in 2012 that Libya really was more about trying to “dictate” the tides rather than trying to “surf” them. The narrative of the Arab Spring just wouldn’t have been as satisfying if Qaddafi and Assad had remained in power while Mubarak fell. We wanted to make sure the story came out the way we wanted it to. And now here we are.

There are many lessons to take from the Libyan war. We have much more power to do harm than we have to do good, particularly when we’re talking about the application of military force. We are, in general, much more ignorant than we realize about the internal conditions in other countries, and these conditions matter much more to outcomes than we realize. Just because a given operation is designed to minimize direct risk to American assets doesn’t mean that we won’t have incurred obligations and commitments that will pose risks down the road. And so forth – all arguments that have been made on Larison’s blog and elsewhere in TAC.

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.

Because this is my blog, you know what I’m going to do now. I’m going to go to Shakespeare, who, as always, was way ahead of all of us. Remember that scene in Julius Caesar that started the whole tidal metaphor thing?

What do you think
Of marching to Philippi presently?

I do not think it good.

Your reason?

This it is:
‘Tis better that the enemy seek us:
So shall he waste his means, weary his soldiers,
Doing himself offence; whilst we, lying still,
Are full of rest, defense, and nimbleness.

Good reasons must, of force, give place to better.
The people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground
Do stand but in a forced affection;
For they have grudged us contribution:
The enemy, marching along by them,
By them shall make a fuller number up,
Come on refresh’d, new-added, and encouraged;
From which advantage shall we cut him off,
If at Philippi we do face him there,
These people at our back.

Hear me, good brother.

Under your pardon. You must note beside,
That we have tried the utmost of our friends,
Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Brutus sounds like he’s winning this argument. But he isn’t. Cassius knows the correlation of forces is already against him, and that a direct confrontation is likely to prove fatal. He is trying to conserve the assets he knows he has. Brutus’s response says nothing about the likelihood of actually winning at Philippi. He just expects the correlation of forces to get even worse, so he figures it’s better to take the gamble now. And not even trying to win would be too unsatisfying to consider. He’s not worried about sinking. He’s worried about a life “bound in shallows and in miseries.”

Brutus’s counsel is the right one for a drama. We like characters who say “never tell me the odds” and just go for it. They’re romantic. But under the surface, it’s the counsel of despair, of somebody who expects to lose and just wants to lose gallantly. Brutus, the “noblest Roman of them all,” was also a self-righteous prig lousy at retaining allies and stupid enough to let his most dangerous enemy go – and, before that, was pathetically easy for Cassius to manipulate into a “venture” that never had very good odds of success. Does this sound like somebody who would have been a successful ruler for Rome? Who would even have had the chance to be the ruler, even if fortune brought him victory at Philippi?

The story we’d write, if we sent the 82nd airborne to Philippi, would be far less narratively-satisfying than we imagine. How much less so than that when we’ve no Brutus to champion.