Regrets, We Have a Few

Remember the winter of 2001, when the Taliban halted the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance -- a collection of Afghan military groups -- on the road to Kabul and forced the country into a decade-long military standoff with the Afghan government? Recall 2003, when Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard fought off the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and set the stage for extended battles between the American and Iraqi militaries? Me neither. Because, of course, neither of those things happened. Whatever you think of either war, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military proved capable of dislodging enemy forces from the capital and securing a tidy victory. The problems all came afterward. So why is the capture of Tripoli by American-backed rebel forces being trumpeted as a glorious win that proves skeptics of the intervention in Libya wrong?

To be clear, the mere fact that initial victory in Iraq and Afghanistan was followed by years of chaos and irregular warfare doesn't mean the same thing will happen in Libya. Nobody should be fooled by facile analogies; history doesn't repeat so literally.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said in March that because of the quagmire in Iraq, he couldn't support the war in Libya. But this past Monday, he repudiated his earlier skepticism about the war, just as some years ago he renounced his enthusiasm for invading Iraq. These sorts of reversals should give one pause. One week after the fall of Baghdad, nobody regretted their enthusiasm for invading Iraq -- they trumpeted it. All of the people, myself included, who backed that war at one point and lived to regret it were chastened by what happened later: It turned out that the United States government had no real idea of how to build a stable new order in Iraq.

This is a fairly profound problem. Ridding the world of a bad regime is nice, but you need to replace it with a better one.

We had ample justification under all traditional standards to go to war with the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the Bush administration's inability to put a well-functioning successor government in its place gave the Taliban the opportunity to make a comeback. Now, ten years later, the U.S. is faced with painful policy dilemmas -- unable to either start again from scratch or just leave and pretend we were never there. In Iraq, the invasion had much less justification, but one could at least trumpet the removal of a genuinely vicious dictator from office. Unfortunately, the regime was simply replaced in the short term by a civil conflict that killed, maimed, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Now, having failed to install a stable new regime in Afghanistan with a small U.S. military footprint, and having failed to do so in Iraq with a medium-sized footprint, the idea for Libya seems to be that we simply won't try.

In the scheme of things, that seems to be the best choice. A postwar Libya without a large NATO troop presence to keep the peace may turn into a bloody fiasco. There may be a revanchist insurgency against the new regime. Or rebel factions may turn on each other and fight a civil war. Or a strongman, no better than Gaddafi, may emerge to dominate the country anew. But there's no particular reason to think that a large, unwelcome presence of foreign soldiers would make things any better. In that regard, Western policy-makers seem to be making the best choice: Be glad Gadhafi is gone, and hope for the best.

I'll certainly be hoping for the best. Maybe there won't be a bloody post-Gadhafi insurgency. Maybe rebel factions won't devolve into civil war. Maybe the new regime won't prove to be equally repressive as the one it displaced. Maybe. Or maybe things will go bad. Either way, the best thing for us to do is to stay out of it.

The real lesson we ought to take, whether things turn out well or not, is that Libya doesn't offer a model here for solving the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan. We haven't figured out how to build decent, stable regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with Libya we're just not going to try. To me, this only confirms the view that we should not put ourselves in the position of building a nation in the first place unless faced with truly urgent threats to American security.

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