Will Libya become Obama’s Iraq?

FINBARR O'REILLY - Rebel fighters in eastern Libya on March 28.

In making his case this past week for the use of force in Libya, President Obama sought to assure the American people that this intervention is prudent and wise, and that it bears no resemblance to the controversial and costly war in Iraq. He even tried to preempt the comparison altogether, explaining why his administration will not attempt to overthrow Moammar Gaddafi by force: “To be blunt,” Obama said, “we went down that road in Iraq.”

Message: I am not Bush, and Benghazi is not Baghdad.

Given the most obvious differences between Iraq and Libya — no ground troops in Libya and no U.N. resolution in Iraq — few will take issue with Obama’s protestation. Yet, Obama’s road in Libya may prove more similar to President George W. Bush’s than it now appears.

For those of us who were deeply engaged in the Iraq war, it is hard not to hear the echoes and recognize the potential pitfalls in America’s new military intervention. Despite the different circumstances, the Iraq war, and the Afghan war as well, offer hard-won insights about the nature of coalitions, the limits of military force and the power of unintended consequences. Considering them now offers us a chance to avoid repeating past mistakes in Libya, particularly ones that proved so costly to us and the people we were trying to help.

To succeed, you need clear goals.

The Bush administration went into Iraq with a multitude of objectives, from finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction to building a new democratic country in the heart of the Middle East. But even at the highest levels, U.S. officials disagreed over how central the creation of a democratic Iraq was to American ambitions and interests. This ambiguity of purpose helped create a serious dilemma: The United States undertook a complicated, multifaceted occupation and nation-building project without the planning and resources required for it to succeed.

Yet, even after Obama’s speech Monday at the National Defense University, it remains unclear what the president considers an acceptable outcome in Libya. Engaging in military action and claiming a desire for regime change, yet expressing unwillingness to use force to achieve that aim, even while providing support to those seeking to oust Gaddafi — this is a recipe for confusion, both within the administration and among the public. The president’s lack of clarity could erode domestic support for the operation, particularly if it grows lengthy and messy. It could also slide the administration into a more ambitious mission than is in U.S. interests or lead to Arab disappointment over a more limited American role.

Don’t sell the American public on a best-case scenario.

Bush’s national security team was criticized for suggesting that the invasion of Iraq would be quick, cheap and simple. This presentation turned out to be wrong, not because the costs and difficulties of ousting Saddam Hussein by military force were higher than expected, but because the administration failed to factor in the potential difficulties of a post-Hussein Iraq and the possibility of a protracted and complicated U.S. role in the country.

Obama could be setting himself up to make the same mistake. In his Monday speech, he focused on America’s role in the military intervention and appeared confident that U.S. engagement could be significantly scaled back, even before that phase of the effort is complete. There was little suggestion that a future American role could depend on what happens in the aftermath of military action. Instead, Obama’s decision to commit U.S. forces seems to have been based on a cost-benefit analysis focused on the military intervention, without consideration of the likely uncertainties of a post-Gaddafi Libya.

Should unintended consequences of military action require more extensive U.S. involvement in Libya — as they did in Iraq — Obama might wish that he had better prepared the American public for the possible downsides of this intervention.

Military force alone can achieve only so much.

Ask any American — military or civilian — his or her greatest takeaway from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, and you are likely to hear some variant of this lesson. In both cases, overwhelming U.S. military superiority created quick initial victories but did little to secure medium- and long-term objectives. Washington needed to commit much greater political and economic resources to consolidate gains and fill the vacuums created by the removals of Hussein and the Taliban.

In Libya, while military force quickly gave rebel fighters a reprieve, the current situation is neither desirable nor sustainable. Whatever the outcome of the military operation — be it a divided country or the end of the Gaddafi regime — Libya will require significant infusions of political capital and financial resources, either to sustain the rebels in their enclave or to rebuild the nation.

Don’t expect local authorities to do too much too quickly.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States went in with plans for rapid transfers of political power once the bad guys were gone. In Afghanistan, the United Nations was immediately to take control of the country’s political future; in Iraq, the initial plan was for a quick handoff of authority to Iraqis. But in both cases, the United States was unable to move to the sidelines and instead became embroiled in the intricacies of nation-building.

On Libya, Obama has already begun speaking of a handoff to international and Libyan authorities to create a legitimate government in a post-Gaddafi nation. “While the United States will do our part to help,” he said Monday, “it will be a task for the international community and — more importantly — a task for the Libyan people themselves.”

Regardless of the talents of the Libyan people, they will need substantial international help. Societies that have endured decades of oppression rarely flourish quickly once the dictator is gone. In Iraq, the traumas and international isolation of the Hussein era have permeated efforts to rebuild the country, making even seemingly straightforward activities, such as choosing a new flag, complicated and painful. Certainly, Libya’s reconstruction might be smoother, but if it becomes harder or more expensive than expected, Obama’s pledge of limited American involvement might ring hollow. The United States may struggle to disengage from a bickering, stalemated Libya without incurring sharp criticism from the Arab world, raising doubts about its credibility as a partner or encountering new security threats that come from a weak state or a civil war in North Africa.

Security, often provided by outsiders, is needed to build sustainable political institutions.

The Bush administration spent much of the early years in Iraq believing, mistakenly, that political progress would bring security. To its credit, it revised its thinking during the strategy review that led to the troop surge that Bush announced in early 2007; the new strategy was based on the premise that local and national leaders needed some modicum of security to make tough decisions about sharing power and resources. The extreme insecurity that Iraqi citizens had experienced was the single most important factor leading to rising sectarianism and the vicious civil conflict in 2006 and 2007.

Who will provide that security for the Libyans? A country such as Egypt may have security institutions that remain legitimate and workable after a revolution or regime change, but Egypt is the exception. People rejecting decades of dictatorial rule are unlikely to accept the security forces that were the primary instruments of oppression once they have overthrown the government. Gaddafi’s army, having completely discredited itself in the eyes of most Libyans, will not offer a stabilizing force should the dictator fall. A neutral, outside peacekeeping force will be needed, at least in the interim, to provide security while Libyans construct their new political future.

Coalitions require constant care and attention.

The political benefits of a coalition (particularly one involving Arab countries) are enormous in an intervention such as the one in Libya. But maintaining a wartime coalition is in­cred­ibly difficult and requires continued American leadership, especially when the operation is managed by NATO. In Afghanistan, even though countries such as Canada, Denmark and Britain have made important contributions to the war effort, the United States remains far and away the dominant force; the “handing off” of Afghanistan to NATO in 2006 arguably proved more style than substance.

The Obama administration has made much of the handover of the Libya mission to NATO oversight. Given that European governments consider Libya more vital to their interests than Afghanistan, a NATO mission in Libya may command more political backing from Europe. However, such support is unlikely to translate into more economic or military resources, simply because European countries are cutting their already modest military and diplomatic budgets, not expanding them.

Quite apart from the question of resources is the issue of alignment. Coalitions are marvelous things as long as all the parties agree on strategy. When members disagree, as the United States and Britain fundamentally did over the approach toward narcotics in Afghanistan, valuable time is lost. In Libya, Obama’s open embrace of regime change — which goes beyond the ambitions expressed by the Arab League and United Nations — probably already sits awkwardly with some U.S. allies.

Don’t forget the neighborhood.

At least at the outset, the Bush administration did not appreciate how fundamentally the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq would reshape the regional balance of power. The removal of both the Taliban and Hussein — Iran’s neighbors and greatest enemies — was a major boost to Tehran and its drive for regional dominance. In retrospect, actions against Hussein and the Taliban should have been accompanied by a broader regional strategy to deal with a predictably emboldened Iran.

What unintended consequences might come from military action in Libya? How will events there ricochet elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East? The Obama administration certainly deserves sympathy for having to deal with such remarkable events in the region in such a short period. But the quick pace of history will be no excuse for a failure to forge a regional strategy that manages and capitalizes on the ripple effects of both the Libya intervention and more homegrown transformations in the region.

Small decisions today are magnified tomorrow.

The experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan clearly demonstrate that decisions made about Libya in the next weeks and months will disproportionately affect the course of the nation for years to come. For instance, the early choice to declare Iraq a federal country allowed the Kurdish north to thrive, but it also seeded current battles over who has the authority to develop Iraq’s oil and gas. Similarly, early decisions to exclude certain groups from politics — senior Baath party members in Iraq or those associated with the Taliban in Afghanistan — determined who was invested in the new states, and who would fight their emergence and consolidation.

Libya, Tunisia and Egypt cannot escape this path dependency — the ability of one decision to force history down a particular avenue. But recognizing the importance of these early choices should encourage everyone involved — whether in Washington, Europe or the Middle East — to slow down and focus more on crafting a legitimate process for decision-making than on delivering specific outcomes at this early stage.

Meghan O’Sullivan served as President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. She is now the Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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