On Libya, Has the Threat Of Force Worked?

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JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 18, 2011

On Libya, Has the Threat Of Force Worked?

Blogging during the course of rapidly-changing events is a great recipe for appearing foolish. But, at trhe moment, the hawkish stance on libya is looking awfully good. Just the other day, Muammar Qaddafi was threatening a bloodbath:

“We will come house by house, room by room. It’s over. The issue has been decided,” Colonel Qaddafi said on a radio call-in show before the United Nations vote, in which he repeated an offer of amnesty to those who laid down their arms. To those who continued to resist, he vowed: “We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.”

Now he's offering a ceasefire, and Libyan rebels are ecstatic:

Benghazi erupted in celebration at news of the resolution’s passage. “We are embracing each other,” said Imam Bugaighis, spokeswoman for the rebel council in Benghazi. “The people are euphoric. Although a bit late, the international society did not let us down.”

A few lessons pertain here. First, the neocon model of standing up to aggression, while frequently wrong, is not always wrong. The model holds that dictators are like bullies, and if you make clear you'll stand up to them, they'll back down. Obviously, this way of thinking fails a lot, most notably leading up to the Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein apparently remained in total denial about U.S. intentions to depose him. One of the main flaws with the idea is that dictators who are crazy enough to carry out mass bloodshed also tend to err on the risk-seeking side in other ways, too. But some of them have a keen sense of self-preservation.

Opponents of intervening in Libya all seemed to assume that the threat of force would automatically mean employing force. This may not turn out to be a correct assumption.

Opponents also assumed that any use of force would devolve into an occupation and/or quagmire. They may be right, and their cautions deserve to be taken seriously. But one caution I have about the caution is how deeply it has been imprinted by the Iraq war. Ross Douthat's recent column ("Iraq Then, Libya Now") views Libya almost entirely through the Iraq prism, when Iraq is not the most relevant historical example.

Iraq, of course, has lessons. But the overwhelming tendency of our foreign policy debates is to over-learn the lessons of the most recent war. I confess to this myself, as my support for the Iraq war was strongly influenced by the successful interventions of the 1990s (the Iraq war, Bosnia, Kosovo.) In war, things usually go differently than we expect -- often for the worse, but not always. 

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posted in: jonathan chait, libya, muammar qaddafi, qaddafi, united nations

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