I wrote the following almost a week ago hoping to get it published. It wasn't. By now, both the argument and the historical analogy have been made in several places, including one that rejected my piece. Oh well, at least the idea was alright, even if the execution wasn't.
This past week the Libyan revolutionaries have suffered a series of serious setbacks. The “Brother Leader” Muammar Qaddafi has successfully pushed back the motley collection of defected soldiers, tribal militias, and untrained Libyan citizens that dare stand up for their freedom. Even the rebel stronghold of Benghazi is now under threat.
Increasingly desperate, Libya’s revolutionaries have called for military intervention to help remove their dictator. In return, they’ve only received humanitarian assistance and rhetoric.
Importantly, Libya would not be the first time a would-be Arab revolution nearly brought a dictator to his knees, only to flounder when the world failed to assist.
Nearly twenty years ago, Iraq’s Shia and Kurds rose up in an intifada that shook Saddam Hussein’s regime to the core. The uprisings took place in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf War after the American-led coalition had decimated the Iraqi military. Disgruntled soldiers fleeing from the front unleashed a torrent of anti-regime sentiment. Saddam lost control of large swaths of Iraqi territory as the people rose up in anger over decades of war, economic stagnation, political oppression, and religious repression.
President Bush even encouraged the uprisings, suggesting Iraqis should “take matters into their own hands” and overthrow Saddam. But that rhetoric never materialized into actual support. Instead, American and coalition soldiers stood by as they watched Iraqi helicopters operate with impunity on the horizon.
Thus Saddam regained his balance, crushing the rebellion methodically and brutally. Countless thousands were killed, their aspirations for a better future dying with them. To this day, Iraqis have not forgiven the U.S. for abandoning the intifada of 1991.
There were plenty of reasons for the U.S. to not assist the rebels – the fear of Iranian influence, the fragility of the military coalition, the worry that Iraq would split along sectarian lines, the unknown of what would come after Saddam, the potential cost in American lives, among others. In fact, many today praise President Bush for showing the prudence that his son would seemingly abandon in 2003.
Yet it is exactly that prudence that cemented American military involvement in Iraq for twenty years. Failing to help when the insurgency could have succeeded, the U.S. was forced to intervene once the rebellion faltered and Saddam threatened to once again massacre his own people.
Over the following two decades, the U.S. deployed troops to the Kurdish north, established no-fly zones in the north and south, trained anti-Saddam militias, supported failed coup-attempts, and bombed Iraqi targets on several occasions. On top of all of these military actions, the U.S. enforced crippling sanctions that devastated Iraq’s society and economy.
But all of these measures came only once Saddam regained his grip on power. In fact, some of these actions, such as the sanctions, perversely strengthened Saddam’s stranglehold over the country by forcing the Iraqi people to rely on the regime for survival. As such, the U.S. counterproductively decided to oust Saddam only after his removal became increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, international resolve to maintain pressure on Saddam predictably faded and fractured over time, especially as the humanitarian toll of sanctions became increasingly pronounced.
This untenable situation of escalating tension between the U.S. and Iraq, an ever-more obstinate Saddam, and fading international support culminated with the disastrous invasion of 2003. In fact, many of America’s greatest difficulties since the invasion of Iraq, such as widespread distrust of our intentions, the absolute collapse of key infrastructure, and the comatose economy, are all remnants of the policy decisions made since the abandonment of the 1991 intifada.
So what lessons can we learn from our experiences in Iraq to help guide us with Libya?
First, if we do decide to intervene, we must do it now. With each passing day, the revolution loses momentum and Qaddafi reasserts his power. The longer we wait to intervene, the harder it will be to remove Qaddafi. If we make the same mistake as we did in Iraq by intervening only after Qaddafi regains the initiative, we will pay the cost in blood and treasure.
Second, if we decide against intervention, we must plan for the humanitarian consequences. Like Saddam, Qaddafi won’t stop his counter-revolution when the rebels put down their arms. He will seek to squash, in his words, every “rat” and “cockroach” he can find. In Iraq, millions of refugees fled to neighboring countries, especially Iran and Turkey. As more Libyans flee to already-beleaguered Egypt and Tunisia, we will have to increase our assistance.
Third, beyond the humanitarian consequences of non-intervention, we must also prepare for dealing with an angry, resurgent Qaddafi who will not forget that President Obama demanded his resignation. The so-called reformed Qaddafi who abandoned his nuclear program and cooperated with counterterrorism efforts will be no more. In his place, we will once again deal with the rogue Qaddafi who blew up planes over Lockerbie and nightclubs in Germany, who befriended dictators like Idi Amin, and who trained ruthless militias globally.
It is that Qaddafi, whom President Reagan dubbed the “mad dog of the Middle East,” we felt to obligated to occasionally bomb and sanction. Just like Saddam, he will present a persistent threat to our interests and security. Moreover, we will risk entering an escalating cycle of tension, threats and violence that could lead to war and fracture international support – an all too familiar dynamic we must avoid.
Just as with the Iraqi intifada, there are many reasons to reject military intervention. We don’t really know who the rebels are. We don’t know what comes after Qaddafi. We don’t want to risk American lives and spend American money. We don't want a war in yet another Muslim-majority country. But the most important reason may soon be that we already missed our chance to remove Qaddafi when we could. If that is the case, then we will have to learn to live with the ramifications.