Is the U.S. Really Responsible for Post-War Libya?

A troubling consensus is emerging that the West must take responsibility for the transition in Tripoli

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While the West celebrates the "fall" of Tripoli to the rebel Libyan forces, it's important not to get too carried away in the grandiloquent utopianism that has marked much of the push for the war. There is a real danger of the endorphin rush of toppling a dictator as hated as Gaddhafi continuing long past his downfall, leading to poor judgment about the future.

What strikes me the most about the war in Libya is how profoundly unimaginative it has been. Even while NATO smarts from its bitter experience meddling in one civil war in Afghanistan, several of its largest member states pushed for immediate involvement in another one in Libya. As the American policy community wrestles with how to responsibly reduce or eliminate its military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a substantial portion of it insisted on moral necessity of engaging in Libya.

Even today, as the various think tanks, policy groups, and planning committees put their heads together to figure out what to do next, there seems to be some emerging consensus that "we," that is the West, must somehow take over responsibility for what will come next.

While this may surprise many of those, in particular on the left, who trumpeted this intervention as a triumph of do-gooder liberal interventionism, it should be entirely predictable. This was a war that was sold to the American people six months ago by promising our involvement would only last days, not weeks. It was a war widely advertised as a new way of multilateral intervention, where even the Arab League stands in unity with the UN and NATO to oust an abusive thug, yet it still fell largely upon the United States and the largest few European states to actually get anything done.

Because the U.S. in particular, but also many European countries (especially Italy) never really planned for this war as a long-term feature of Mediterranean security, it has been waged in a very ad hoc manner, without a good sense of a political strategy for winning it, or for securing the peace once the Gaddhafi regime fell. Just last night, I discussed this problem with Daniel Serwer of SAIS for Bloggingheads. Here's the video:

Libya has been devastated not just by the last six months of war, but by decades of unjustifiable misrule by Gaddhafi and his regime. The International Community is already coalescing around this idea that they "own" Libya in some way, or at least the aftermath of the fighting. And what does the International Community do when it feels a sense of ownership over a crisis? It sends in the aid workers. The governance consultants. The security firms to secure them. The fleets of white Toyota Land Cruisers with blacked out windows, trailed by black Chevy Suburbans sunk low on their suspension from all the armor, stuffed full of heavily-armed foreigners holding hair triggers to keep their principles -- those development consultants -- alive.

If we are really honest with ourselves, we should assume the transition in Libya will go less smoothly than even a relative success like Kosovo. Itself an air war fought without a single mainstream soldier on the ground, Kosovo still has nearly 6,000 NATO troops continuing to enforce an uneasy peace 12 years after that conflict began. Then, as now, the liberal interventionists who thought they were doing God's work by poking their fingers into a civil war dramatically underestimated the cost of the war, both financial and personal (nearly a hundred thousand Serbs were chased from their homes by rampaging Kosovar militias). They also badly estimated the length of commitment. Who in 1999 would have supported intervention if they knew there would still be so many troops there, over a decade later?

Yet, despite the very consistent lessons of recent history, where interventions always cost more, always kill more, and always last far longer than their clearest-eyed supporters claim they will, we still continue to bungle into the same quagmires, hoping against hope that our luck will hold and somehow, miraculously, it won't turn into disaster.

Now, in late 2011, when the American and European economies are on the brink of failure, the foreign policy elites of both continents are openly discussing how many troops and development agencies they should send to rebuild Libya. It's as if the 1990s and 2000s never happened. Rather than a triumph of the human spirit, I see what's happening in Libya as the ultimate victory of anti-imagination, of the refusal by uncreative policy wonks to ever contemplate something besides what they've only ever known: troops, expensive and barely effective reconstruction schemes, and lots of finger-wagging about how third world people aren't measuring up to western standards of government and society.

Libya has been a war without a strategy, as has Iraq and Afghanistan. While those latter two have not worked out as well as we've hoped, by some bizarre luck all the breaks have gone our way in Libya ... so far. Instead of hoping against hope that things just happen to keep going our way, what is needed in Washington and Brussels is an extensive -- and honest -- accounting of what each government feels responsible for, whether Libya, France, the UK, Italy, or the United States. After that discussion they need to honestly estimate the cost of meeting that responsibility for a decade or longer, and then justify to their publics why such an endeavor is truly worth undertaking. And if the cost is too high to bear but the mission too essential to abandon, then I really do hope they can break out of their ossified ways of thinking and try something new.