A particular campaign that goes awry [bold mine-DL] like Somalia or Iraq or Libya may attract passing attention, but never the context in which that campaign was undertaken [bold mine-DL]. We can be certain that the election of 2016 will be no different.
It is almost never mentioned now, so it is easy to forget that many Libyan war supporters initially argued for intervention in order to save the “Arab Spring.” Their idea was that the U.S. and its allies could discourage other regimes from forcibly putting down protests by siding with the opposition in Libya, and that if the U.S. didn’t do this it would “signal” dictators that they could crush protests with impunity. This never made sense at the time. Other regimes would have to believe that the U.S. would consistently side with their opponents, and there was never any chance of that happening. If it sent any message to them, the intervention in Libya sent other regimes a very different message: don’t let yourself be internationally isolated like Gaddafi, and you won’t suffer his fate. Another argument for the intervention was that it would change the way the U.S. was perceived in the region for the better. That didn’t make sense, either, since Western intervention in Libya wasn’t popular in most countries there, and even if it had been it wouldn’t change the fact that the U.S. was pursuing many other policies hated by people throughout the region. It was on the foundation of shoddy arguments such as these that the case for war in Libya was built.
Bacevich is right that many critics fault specific interventions for their failings without questioning the larger assumptions about the U.S. role in the region that led to those wars. Liberal hawks will complain that the Iraq war was run incompetently (and it was), but they don’t give up on the idea of preventive war or the belief that the U.S. is entitled to attack other states more or less at will in the name of “leadership.” Neoconservatives will fault Obama for not doing more in Libya after the regime was overthrown, but it would never occur to them that toppling foreign governments by force is wrong or undesirable. There remains a broad consensus that the U.S. “leads” the world and in order to exercise that “leadership” it is free to destabilize and attack other states as it sees fit. The justifications change from country to country, but the assumptions behind them are always the same: we have the right to interfere in the affairs of other nations, our interference is benevolent and beneficial (and any bad results cannot be tied to our interference), and “failure” to interfere constitutes abdication of “leadership.”
To make matters worse, every intervention always has a die-hard group of dead-enders that will defend the rightness and success of their war no matter what results it produces. They don’t think the war they supported every really went “awry” except when it was ended “too soon.” Everyone is familiar with Iraq war dead-enders, who continue to claim to this day that the war had been “won” by the end of Bush’s second term and that it was only by withdrawing that the U.S. frittered away its “victory.” The defense of the Libyan war is somewhat different, but at its core it shares the same ideological refusal to own up to failure. In Libya, the mistake was not in taking sides in a civil war in which the U.S. had nothing at stake, but in failing to commit to an open-ended mission to stabilize the country after the regime was overthrown. Libyan war supporters don’t accept that their preferred policy backfired and harmed the country it was supposedly trying to help. That would not only require them to acknowledge that they got one of the more important foreign policy questions of the last decade badly wrong, but it would contradict one of their core assumptions about the U.S. role in the world. As far as they’re concerned, Libya is still the “model” and “good” intervention that they claimed it was five years ago, and nothing that has happened in Libya can ever prove otherwise.
That might not matter too much, but unfortunately pro-war dead-enders continue to have considerable influence in shaping our foreign policy debates on other issues. They bring the same bankrupt assumptions to debates over what the U.S. should be doing in Syria, Ukraine, Iran, and elsewhere, and they apply the same faulty judgment that led them to think regime change and taking sides in foreign civil wars was smart. They still haven’t learned anything from the failures of previous interventions (because they don’t accept that they were failures), and so keep making many of the same mistakes of analysis and prescription that they made in the past.