Stephen M. Walt

Learning the right lessons from Libya

The rebel victory in Libya is likely to gladden the hearts of liberal interventionists, who will see the NATO-aided triumph as vindicating the idea that great powers have the right and the responsibility to come to the aid of victims of tyrannical oppression. Add to that the general enthusiasm-which I share-for the broad effort to ...

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

The rebel victory in Libya is likely to gladden the hearts of liberal interventionists, who will see the NATO-aided triumph as vindicating the idea that great powers have the right and the responsibility to come to the aid of victims of tyrannical oppression. Add to that the general enthusiasm-which I share-for the broad effort to create more open and democratic orders in the Middle East, and it seems likely that the Wilsonian project that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has long embraced will get a shot in the arm. The debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan will be discounted, and the "Libyan model" (whatever that is) will become the latest strategic fad du jour.

If you’d like to read a good corrective to this sort of cheer-leading, I recommend Robert Kaplan’s oped this morning’s Financial Times, entitled ""Libya, Obama, and the Triumph of Realism." Kaplan is a self-acknowledged realist, and he offers a good defense of broadly realist approach to the tumultuous events in the Arab world and Asia. He reminds us that a realist strategy in these regions paid major dividends for many years, and argues that a balanced, prudent, and cautious policy is more likely to preserve key interests than the idealistic crusades favored by neoconservatives and Wilsonian liberals alike.

As you might expect, I think Kaplan is basically right. As I’ve noted before, we still don’t know how the "Libyan revolution" is going to turn out. Even if Qaddafi set a very low standard for effective or just governance, the end-result of his ouster may not be as gratifying as we hope. More importantly, we also ought to guard against the common tendency to draw big policy conclusions from a single case, especially when we don’t have good theories to help us understand the differences between different outcomes.

Looking forward, the policy-relevant question is whether it is a good idea for powerful outside powers to use military force to cause regime change in weak states whose leaders are misbehaving in some way. This phenomenon has become known as "foreign-imposed regime change" (FIRC). To answer that question, the first thing one ought to ask is what the general baseline patterns are: how often do FIRCs succeed, based on various measures of success? If Libya turns out well but the vast majority of FIRCs were failures, for example, then a prudent policymaker would be wary of trying to repeat the Libyan operation elsewhere. (The logic is the same in reverse, of course, our failures in Iraq do not mean that all preventive wars are wrong, even if that one obviously was).

The second step would be to identify the conditions associated with success or failure, and the causal mechanisms leading to one outcome or another. (Thus, far, the academic literatures suggests that FIRCs are more likely to fail when there are deep ethnic or religious cleavages in the target society, and when it is relatively poor). Even if FIRCs usually failed, for example, there might be certain circumstances when success was much more likely and where attempting regime change would therefore be more attractive. Because this is social science and not deterministic, knowing that conditions are favorable is no guarantee of success. But surely a smart policymaker would want to know both the general tendency and whether the case at hand might be an outlier.

The third step-which should be informed by the first two-would be to ask if there were specific policy steps that could be taken to increase the probability of success. And the smart follow-up question is to ask whether one’s opponents have readily available strategies that they could employ to thwart our efforts). Even if FIRCs often fail, perhaps clever strategies and "policy learning" could improve the success rate over time, especially if leaders picked their spots carefully and if the other side had a limited repertoire of responses.

But notice one danger here: even when circumstances aren’t propitious, advocates of intervention can fall prey to wishful thinking and convince themselves that they have figured out how to do these things properly, thereby avoiding the disasters that have befallen others. Right now, some people are undoubtedly thinking that the right combination of special forces, drones, local allies, and multilateral support are the magic formula for success. They may be right but I wouldn’t assume it blindly and I wouldn’t ignore the possibility that others will start thinking about ways to make sure the U.S. and its allies can’t repeat this sort of thing elsewhere. Donald Rumsfeld was pretty sure he knew how the United States could avoid costly quagmires-go in light and get out early-the only problem was that getting in turned out to be the easy part. And don’t be surprised if a few countries conclude that the real lesson of the Libyan intervention was that Muammar al-Qaddafi blundered when he agreed to end his WMD programs and open up to the outside world. I’m glad he did, but I suspect that leaders in Iran and North Korea will draw their own conclusions.

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

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