Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates drew his own line in the sand on Middle East wars at West Point in February. “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

It’s a line that should be in the mission statement for operation “Odyssey Dawn” now underway in Libya, but it appears to be lost in the conversation about next steps in the battle to remove Moammar Gaddafi from power.

Gates is rightly standing by his opinion for now. As he noted last week, “We are in dark territory” in Libya. “I think what you’re seeing is the difference between a military mission and a policy initiative,” Gates said. “We are so focused on these individual countries, I think that we have lost sight of the extraordinary story that is going on in the Middle East.”

Gates will get even tougher if the United States and its allies decide to put boots on the ground to help the rebels. He’s read enough over the years to know that nation building is not for the impatient.

Gates certainly sounds as if he learned the right lessons from the RAND Corporation’s 2003 report on nation building in Iraq. Even as President George W. Bush was promising that democracy was only months away, RAND had the courage and rigorous analysis to say otherwise.

Having defined nation building as “the use of armed forces in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin an enduring transition to democracy,” RAND’s nonpartisan researchers concluded that success depends on at least five factors.

First, RAND noted that nation building is just plain tough, especially if it involves the kind of multilateral action that has produced the greatest national-building successes in modern history. Multilateral action is not only much more effective than unilateral engagement such as Iraq, but is also less expensive for the individual partners. That’s an asset already in play in Libya.

Second, RAND argued that there is an inverse relationship between the size of the military force and the level of casualties. “The higher the proportion of troops relative to the resident population,” RAND’s James Dobbins wrote in the 2003 report, “the lower the number of casualties suffered and inflicted.” Dobbins should know--he served the Clinton and second Bush administrations as the U.S. special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and has the troubleshooting and crisis management expertise to speak with great authority.

Third, RAND urged great caution about the need to put enough resources into the engagement. Although NATO has no plans yet to put troops on the ground, RAND cautioned former President George W. Bush that he needed roughly 500,000 troops to create a democratic Iraq, but Bush wanted to have his cake and eat it too. Bush made a big promise, but never owned up to the cost. “No one has discovered successful stabilization strategies that avoid large troop commitments while trying to bring order to large population,” RAND’s defense specialist James Quinlivan also wrote in 2003. The rule applied to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and would apply to Libya as well.

Fourth, RAND reported that unity of command is essential for both military and diplomatic success. Absent a shared mission and timetable, coalitions fray. That is just what is now happening in Libya. RAND also noted the role of neighboring nations in supporting nation building. “It is nearly impossible to put together a fragmented nation if its neighbors try to tear it apart,” Dobbins wrote. “Every effort should be made to secure their support.” Unfortunately, Libya’s neighbors are also burning. Although Arab nations such as the United Arab Emirates are stepping up to the challenge, the U.S. and its allies have very few levers in the region.

Finally, RAND cautioned that nation building takes time. Having reviewed U.S. success in Germany and Japan after World War II, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, RAND concluded that none of the cases was successfully completed in less than seven years. Add in eight years of Iraq and the average rises another year or so.

The other implication is that there must be a clear exit strategy, which is still missing in Libya. Odyssey Dawn seems to have no timetable at all. No stopping point. No clear strategy for when and where to strike. NATO may have something in mind but hasn’t revealed its hand, which makes perfect sense only to a point. Gates himself said nobody has the answer about when the Libyan engagement might end.

Gates is right to worry about over-commitment in any war, especially as the loosely organized rebel forces advance. He would also be right to note that those who ignore history are likely to repeat it. RAND offered the right lessons in 2003, and had been cautioning the Bush administration even before the Iraq War began. But the Bush administration ignored the warnings with characteristic hubris.

The question is whether NATO and the U.S. will heed the Iraq lesson. Gates will certainly be in the conversation, but he won’t have the political juice to make much impact.

At the very least, RAND’s prescience should be on the table as planners start designing grand schemes to remake the world. That is why Gates’ speech in February was so important. We can only hope the West Pointers will remember who told the truth first and will use the lessons in decisions to come. President Barack Obama should take note too.