Lessons Learned in Libya

All the usual signs point to an inevitable and imminent strike against Syria, with Washington heading a new “coalition of the willing” — not to be confused with multilateralism. Although every case is unique and there are many examples of the human capacity for making the same mistake again and again, it is worth taking into consideration our past experiences to figure out how we got here and what to expect next.

At this point, Obama is not considering a full intervention as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not even toppling the regime, as in Libya. Indeed, he has reached this point having learned his lesson in Libya where he was forced into yet another messy military conflict in the region by following the same playbook that he thought was going to get him out. What he learned from Libya was that it is better to be in the company of Islamic allies — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and Turkey — in order to avoid problems of conflict between West and East. He is also aware that, if he has political control, the existence of U.N. support is little more than an inconsequential formality; the lack of such support in Iraq did not stop Western adventurism, and in Libya they overstepped the bounds set by the two approved resolutions, arming the rebels, attacking targets outside of the mandate and deploying special forces units. Most of all, he understands that the problem is not removing a dictator, such as Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi, so much as it is finding a reliable alternative. Finally, he knows that arming the so-called rebels could in chaos and confusion, result as in Mali, Niger and also Tunisia, when the main objective is stability much more so than democracy.

Meanwhile, thinking that he would satisfy those who demanded greater military involvement from him, Obama made it clear that the use of chemical weapons was a line that could not be crossed without serious consequences. He thought that nobody in his right mind would dare to cross it, and he could count on his policy to help him avoid a large scale deployment of his troops. Then he could start negotiations between the most flexible rebels, without arming them too heavily, and the representatives of a regime that he still saw as a lesser evil — since, at the end of the day, the regime does not threaten any of Washington’s vital interests and is preferable to the al-Nusra Front. But now that John Kerry has publicly accused the regime of using chemical weapons, Obama is obligated to do something to preserve his country’s international credibility — even if it is only because others, like Pyongyang or Tehran, could also decide to cross their own supposed lines.

In light of this, we can expect Obama to make an effort to limit the scope of the strike to the chemical weapons and some key command and control facilities. Even though he knows that he will face criticism from many of those who, until now, insisted that he act, he would rather pay the cost of breaking international law than provide further arms to rebels that he does not trust — and rightly so. However, he does trust that the expected missiles as well as the airstrikes will be “clean,” without American casualties and without “collateral damage” — which is just shy of asking for a miracle. He also seems to be hoping al-Assad and his allies get the message that there is no intention of ousting him, but rather taking him to Geneva II to negotiate a solution that won’t leave Syria fragmented and in the hands of jihadis. Moreover, Obama hopes both that the Syrians won’t retaliate against him if he carries out his attack and that there will not be any further chemical attacks before the arsenal is destroyed. One can always hope.

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