Shadow Government

Who Benefits from the Unraveling in Syria and Libya?

Costly U.S. military occupations that go poorly can have the unintended side effect of bolstering the al Qaeda threat. That is a lesson of the Iraq war. But we are learning that noninterventions (Syria) and hyper-light-footprint interventions (Libya) can also bolster al Qaeda. And while it is too soon for a final judgment, since all ...

Photo: ABO SHUJA/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: ABO SHUJA/AFP/Getty Images

Costly U.S. military occupations that go poorly can have the unintended side effect of bolstering the al Qaeda threat. That is a lesson of the Iraq war. But we are learning that noninterventions (Syria) and hyper-light-footprint interventions (Libya) can also bolster al Qaeda. And while it is too soon for a final judgment, since all are still works in progress (or perhaps dysfunctions in regress), it may be that on the narrow question of which approach sets back al Qaeda the most, the correct answer would surprise critics of the American military: Al Qaeda may well have been hurt far more by what the United States did in Iraq than by what the United States has not done in Syria, or barely done in Libya.

The devolution of the Iraq war from the rapid overthrow of Saddam Hussein into the long, hard slog of the occupation and counterinsurgency proved to be a temporary bonanza for al Qaeda. The Iraq war became a rallying cry, and would-be terrorists flocked to Iraq in order to kill Americans, just as a generation earlier they had flocked to Afghanistan to kill Soviets. The Iraqi franchise of the terrorist network, al Qaeda in Iraq, benefited from the influx and, for a time, threatened to be the "stronger horse" that Osama bin Laden had hoped al Qaeda would be. Many critics pointed out the tragic irony that a war that George W. Bush’s administration launched partly in the hopes of weakening al Qaeda by eliminating one potential source of weapons of mass destruction would actually have the opposite effect. In fact, if the United States could have been driven from Iraq in defeat, the war might actually have had the result of culminating bin Laden’s original strategy for 9/11: a spectacular defeat of the United States that would expose it in the eyes of Muslim communities as a "paper tiger," forcing it to retreat from the region in disgrace and thus leaving America’s partners at the mercy of the rising al Qaeda "stronger horse."

That arguably was the trajectory the Iraq war was on in 2006 and, but for Bush’s surge, might have been the result. One of the ironies of history is that the U.S. critics of the Iraq war might have been able to prove themselves right if they had succeeded in thwarting the surge, as they tried to do in 2007.

However, as we now know, the critics were unable to stop Bush’s surge. It was implemented and it reversed the trajectory, and by 2009, al Qaeda in Iraq was strategically spent. Iraq was no longer the rallying cry, and the safe havens were shut down. (To be sure, the al Qaeda network in Iraq has shown signs of reviving in recent years due to bad decisions by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But the recent erosion in Iraq owes more to U.S. noninterference than it does to interference.)

Which brings us to the examples of Syria and Libya. The situations there are very bleak. U.S. officials now believe Syria has become the global focal point for the war on terror. Would-be terrorists are flocking to Syria as they once flocked to Iraq, and they are finding safe havens for what I call the "weaponization of resentment" — turning individuals with an ideology of political grievance into militant terrorists. Syria now looks to be facing the same worst-case scenario we faced in Iraq: devolution into distinct enclaves, some of which will be controlled by the most radical elements of the al Qaeda network. We will never know for certain whether another policy would have avoided this — perhaps more muscular support for moderate rebels earlier, as several of Barack Obama’s advisors wanted but the president vetoed. But we do know that this is the fruit of the policy choices we and others have taken.

In Libya, the United States tried something in between the inaction of Syria and the costly occupation of Iraq. There, too, the results look bleak. Ever since the terrorist attack against America’s Benghazi compound last year, it has been obvious that the security situation in Libya has deteriorated sharply from the early promising signs of late fall of 2011. This Saturday’s raid has drawn attention to this unraveling, leading some to speculate that Libya is on the brink of collapse. The loosely controlled weapons arsenals in Libya are already fueling conflict throughout the region and post-Qaddafi Libya may be a net exporter of instability.

We learned in Iraq that intervention can lead to occupation and many unintended consequences that cost far more than what proponents of the policy expected. But we also learned that seeing that policy through to a successful conclusion may achieve markedly better outcomes vis-à-vis the terrorist network than are otherwise available after the proverbial Rubicon has been crossed.

We are learning in Syria and Libya that policies of nonintervention (refusing to cross the Rubicon) and halfhearted intervention (leading from behind) seem cheaper in the short run but may prove to be quite costly in the long run. Indeed, in the worst case, al Qaeda could regain in Syria and Libya what it lost in Iraq.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
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