Nobody in Asia and nobody in Europe is calling for the Marines to be sent back to the shores of Tripoli either. The French, feeling guilty for having failed to support (or even foresee) the revolution in Tunisia, have sent humanitarian aid to Benghazi — but have simultaneously argued against military involvement. The British have already bungled their first solo attempt to see what could be done. On Saturday, a British special forces team and an MI6 intelligence officer touched down near Benghazi, intending simply to make contact with the rebels. They were promptly arrested, handcuffed, interrogated and sent out of the country. The last thing the rebels want, apparently, is the stigma of contact with foreigners.
Why the Arab anxiety about American and Western help? Why the reluctance among our allies? The answer can be summed up in a single word: Iraq. Far from setting “an example for the entire region,” as Krauthammer put it, Iraq serves as a dire warning: Beware, for this could be the fate of your country. When the U.S. Army entered Iraq, we knew nothing about the Iraqi opposition, except what we’d heard from a couple of exiles. Our soldiers didn’t speak Arabic and hadn’t been told what to do once they got to Baghdad. Chaos followed incompetence, which begat violence: Tens of thousands of people died in an eight-year civil war. Although a fragile democracy has emerged, this isn’t an example anyone, anywhere, wants to follow.
It’s not hard to understand why Libyans and others might fear a repeat performance. In truth, the time to contact the Libyan opposition was a year ago — or five years ago — back when Tony Blair was shaking hands with Moammar Gaddafi inside desert tents and Western oil companies were going in to do business. But the British didn’t. We didn’t either. Now we don’t even know who they are. Various colonels have emerged as “spokesmen” for the rebels — but for all of the rebels? Or just some of the rebels? News reports cite “secondhand reports through rebel networks” as sources; in other words, somebody told somebody else what’s going on. As the failed British escapade shows, the spies don’t know any better.
We should enforce sanctions in Libya, offer humanitarian aid and put in place a no-fly zone, to be activated if the rebels really begin to lose. But at the moment, even if our military had unlimited funding — which it doesn’t — the Pentagon is not equipped to launch democracy in Libya. That is a job for our underfunded international radio networks, especially the ones that broadcast in Arabic; for independent institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy; for groups that train judges and journalists. Unfortunately, we don’t have the contacts such groups need. We should start making them now.
It’s nice to be on the right side of history, and I’m not surprised that George W. Bush’s remaining supporters now feel good about the “freedom agenda” he sometimes advocated and sometimes forgot while in office. But being right, even morally right, isn’t everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It’s important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It’s important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist. Let’s not repeat past mistakes: Before sending in the 101st Airborne, we should find out what people on the ground want and need. Because right now, I don’t hear them clamoring for us to come. They are afraid of what American “assistance” might do to their country.