Stephen M. Walt

Whatever happened to the war in Libya?

Vacation is over, and as I took the bus to my office this morning I had a sudden thought: Whatever happened to the war in Libya? You know, the one that used to be on the front pages every day? The one that was critical to preventing a humanitarian bloodbath and to preserving the momentum ...


Vacation is over, and as I took the bus to my office this morning I had a sudden thought: Whatever happened to the war in Libya? You know, the one that used to be on the front pages every day? The one that was critical to preventing a humanitarian bloodbath and to preserving the momentum of the "Arab Spring?" The one that Obama’s obedient lawyers claimed didn’t involve "hostilities," in a transparent effort to evade the requirements of the War Powers Resolution? Oh, right: that one.

Obviously, the war is still going on, and it sometimes rates a new story buried deep in the middle of the newspaper, but the hopes of a rapid and cheap victory were dashed a long time ago. Assuming NATO continues to back the rebels, they will probably succeed in slowly grinding the Qaddafi family/regime into the ground — though apparently some European leaders are now saying that negotiations are the way to go, which suggests a less-than-optimal degree of unity among the coalition (h/t Juan Cole). But if Qaddafi does go, then the liberal hawks will give each other high-fives and do their best to obscure the miscalculations and longer-term consequences of this latest whimsical war.

Three thoughts. First, although the main justification for intervention was the fear of a possible "bloodbath" had Qaddafi’s forces captured the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, a second rationale was the fear that permitting Qaddafi to triumph would derail the entire Arab Spring. In essence, this was a fear of "reverse contagion": If a kleptocratic dictator like Qaddafi could use force to stay in power in Libya, then other autocrats would be similarly emboldened and the progressive forces that had launched the various upheavals would lose heart. To keep the revolutionary wave moving forward, Qaddafi had to go.

This argument now seems fallacious. There was clearly an element of contagion in the original revolutionary wave, which spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Yemen to Bahrain and to Syria with remarkable speed. But like other examples of political contagion, the outcomes in each case depended on the constellation of local and external forces in each particular place and not on what was occurring in some other country. The outcome in Egypt is very different from those in Syria or Yemen, for example, and Libya and Bahrain and Morocco are carving their own paths too. In short, what happened in Libya probably had little or no effect on what is occurring elsewhere in the Arab world. To put it bluntly: If we had stayed out and Qaddafi had won outright, I suspect Assad would still be in trouble.

Second, back when NATO first got involved, a number of people made the obvious comparison to the 1999 war in Kosovo. Both wars were launched on impulse, there were no vital strategic interests involved, and both wars were fought "on the cheap" through the use of air power. NATO leaders expected the targets to succumb quickly and were surprised when their adversaries (Milosevic in 1999, Qaddafi today) hung on as long as they did.

But there’s another parallel that deserves mention too. Serbia eventually surrendered, and I expect that Qaddafi or his sons will eventually do so too. But in the case of Kosovo, NATO and the U.N. had to send in a peacekeeping force, and they are still there 10 years later. And Kosovo has only about 28 percent of Libya’s population and is much smaller geographically (some 10,000 square kilometers, compared with Libya’s 1,800,000 sq. km.). So anybody who thinks that NATO, the United Nations, or the vaguely defined "international community" will be done whenever Qaddafi says uncle (or succumbs to a NATO airstrike) should probably lower their expectations and prepare themselves for long-term involvement in a deeply divided country.

Third, this latest little war leads me to think we need a new term. You all know the distinction between "wars of necessity" and "wars of choice." The line between the two is sometimes blurry, but we tend to think of the former as wars where vital strategic interests (and maybe national survival) are at stake, while the latter are wars where there is no immediate or urgent necessity for either strategic or humanitarian grounds, though one can imagine some strategic benefits accruing if all goes as planned. I propose a third category: "wars of whim." These are wars that powerful and wealthy countries fight for the same reasons that some powerful politicians cheat: "because they can."

It’s not that the leaders who start these wars can’t come up with reasons for what they are doing. Human beings are boundlessly creative, and a powerful state can always devise a rationale for using force. And proponents may even believe it. But the dictionary defines whim as a "sudden or capricious idea, a fancy." A "war of whim" is just that: a war that great powers enter without careful preparation or forethought, without a public debate on its merits or justification, and without thinking through the consequences if one’s initial assumptions and hopes are not borne out. Wars of whim aren’t likely to bankrupt a nation by themselves or even lead to major strategic reversals. But they are yet another distraction, at a time when world leaders ought to focusing laser-like on a very small number of Very Big Issues (like the economy).

So maybe that’s the silver lining: If we’re not paying much attention to Libya anymore, doesn’t that tell us something about its real importance?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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