As the US Considers Intervention in Libya, It Should Look to History

By Michael C. Hudson

As any U.S. Marine can tell you, America’s first overseas military intervention occurred in what is now Libya. The United States eventually carried the day, won release of its hostages, and the ruler of Tripoli ultimately gave up piracy and hostage-taking. But the operation could hardly be called a glorious success. Interventions can have costs. After the fledgling U.S. naval squadron blockaded Tripoli harbor in 1803, the frigate Philadelphia was captured. Eventually, Stephen Decatur famously scuttled the ship but one would have to observe that this was not an unvarnished victory. Nor was the fact that the U.S. had to ransom its hostages. Finally in 1805, William Eaton led his force of eight Marines and 500 mercenaries across the desert to “the shores of Tripoli” to carry out regime change, but they only got as far as Derna, east of Benghazi. Although a bit short of their destination, they still were able to persuade the Pasha to sue for peace.

If there is any lesson to be learned from this curious episode, it might be that foreign interventions can be messy. No wonder Thomas Jefferson and John Adams argued about the utility of military force in dealing with overseas problems. 181 years later in 1986, President Ronald Reagan — provoked by Muammar al-Qadhafi’s nefarious (indeed murderous) activities in Europe and elsewhere — ordered an air attack on Tripoli and Benghazi. Two years later, Libyan agents (who may not have been acting alone) brought down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Today, once again, we are debating the merits of intervening in Libya.

Although the United States has come to exercise pervasive influence across the greater Middle East and maintains a ubiquitous global military presence, it has rarely intervened with boots on the ground. But there are, perhaps, lessons to be learned from those occasions when it has done so — in Lebanon, Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The overall record of accomplishment is mixed. Two cases — Lebanon in 1958 and Kuwait in 1991 — might be considered clear success stories. Lebanon in 1958 was quick and cost-free — only one fatality (non-combat) among the some 20,000 Marines and Army units that waded ashore on the pristine beaches south of Beirut that summer. Even so, the operation in retrospect has a comic-opera quality. Having been invited in by a pro-Western president desperately clinging to power in the face of popular protests, the U.S. ended up actually arranging his departure and helping install the “neutral” Lebanese army commander who was acceptable to the rebels. And the larger strategic objective — to stem the tide of radical Arab nationalism that had just toppled the pro-Western monarchy in Iraq and threatened Jordan — was at best only partially achieved. Iraq went on to fall under Ba’thist rule, eventually in the grip of Saddam Hussein, whose misdeeds would trigger two subsequent U.S. interventions.

The other success story is the U.S.-led invasion of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1991. Saddam’s forces had occupied Kuwait the previous August. The decision to intervene was not an easy one: not only was Saddam’s army thought to be a capable, battle-tested force, there was strong opposition from within the Arab world. Arab leaders made several abortive attempts to find an “Arab solution” in order to avert what the public would widely see as an imperialist invasion. In fact, radical Islamists, soon to be led by al-Qaeda, were outraged that Saudi Arabia would allow American forces on hallowed ground. But the American calculation was that the liquidation of a friendly oil-exporting state would undermine vital American interests in the region and threaten the other weak oil states. Ultimately, President George H.W. Bush, through able diplomacy, enlisted key Arab governmental support not just from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council governments, but also, crucially, from Egypt and Syria. Kuwait was well and truly liberated, but Saddam remained unrepentant and firmly in power.

If these two “success stories” are marked by a clear mission, coherent execution, a prompt and smooth exit strategy, and a minimally supportive domestic and regional context, the “failures” offer other lessons. America’s second intervention in Lebanon in 1982, as part of a multinational force monitoring the withdrawal of Palestinian forces after the Israel’s invasion, was a fiasco. The U.S. Marines failed to prevent the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Phalangists with the acquiescence of Israel. The American embassy was blown up. Then, 241 Marines were killed in a suicide truck bomb attack. The U.S. ended up sucked into Lebanon’s ongoing civil war, engaged in fruitless shelling of the Lebanese mountain, skirmished with Syria and finally made a hasty and embarrassing withdrawal.

Then we come to our two ongoing interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fact that American and allied forces are still in Afghanistan in large numbers ten years later, with a long and uncertain struggle still ahead, is testament to the limits of even vast military power. Al-Qaeda eluded the American reach and while the Taliban regime was overturned, it is a bit ironic that in the endless effort to establish a stable new regime, Washington is now looking to bringing “good” Taliban back in. As for the American invasion of Iraq, the folly of that endeavor — in logic, planning, and execution — has deeply eroded American credibility throughout the region; and the authoritarian regime (despite its “elected” character) that replaced Saddam Hussein is now eliciting the same kind of mass protests that we are seeing in North Africa, Jordan, and even the Gulf. The chief beneficiary has been Iran, while Washington has little to show for eight years of material and human expenditures.

The ongoing Arab popular awakening against authoritarian regimes has forced Washington to confront these historical legacies and look anew at the contradictions of its Middle East policies. After a wobbly start, the Obama administration to its credit has tried to position itself on the side of the reformers. Considering that most of the authoritarian regimes are U.S. allies, this has not been easy to undertake. Tunisia and Egypt were comparatively simple cases. But Libya is turning out to be something else entirely: a de facto civil war. And if protests again grow ugly in Bahrain and other Gulf states, Washington will find itself firmly skewered on the horns of its dilemma: support autocratic regimes in the name of purported stability or back reformists whose values we share but whose ultimate nature is hard to ascertain. A truly “rogue regime” until it discovered the virtues of making up with the West, Qadhafi’s bizarre family-tribal military autocracy is counter-attacking against the determined, enthusiastic, but poorly organized and ill-equipped protest movement. The convergence of morality and interests is understandably generating pressure for the U.S. to come to the rescue militarily.

But before using force in the present case, the U.S. needs to look back at its own decidedly mixed record in the region and consider the following five simple rules for intervention:

1)    Don’t come in unless invited. As the well-armed British SAS agents discovered, the Libyan rebels don’t welcome foreign soldiers. Still less will they welcome American boots on the ground, considering the interventionist baggage the U.S. carries. Qadhafi, on the other hand, could make political hay out of overt U.S. involvement.

2)    If you feel you must go in, don’t go in alone. Join with the neighbors who are closest to the conflict. In the Libya case this means Arab neighbors first of all — Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Secondarily, western allies might help, but remember the bad memories Libyans have of Italian and British colonialism.

3)    Be prepared for things that will go wrong. As our previous interventions have shown, Murphy’s Law invariably applies. Sometimes there is a happy ending as in Lebanon in 1958. But most of the time the intervener gets stuck in the mustanq’a — the swamp of local conditions that we only superficially understand. Which is why Rule 4 is important.

4)    Don’t overstay your welcome. One of the rallying cries of the nationalists (led by Qadhafi) in 1969 was the closure of Wheelus Air Force base — then the largest base outside the U.S. Even if desperate rebels might initially accept an ongoing U.S. presence, the Libyan public will resist anything that looks like the re-establishment of a Western military presence. A post-Qadhafi regime foolish enough to encourage such a permanent engagement would soon be confronting its own rebels, including incidentally radical Islamists.

5)    Consider the alternatives. Look before you leap. This is not the time for the Marines to march toward the shores of Tripoli again. Troops on the ground, even if invited by the rebels, will create more problems than they solve. A no-fly zone, according to Secretary of Defense Gates, cannot be established without destroying Qadhafi’s air defenses first. The Libyan protesters need weaponry to confront Qadhafi’s tanks and armor on the ground. It is hard to imagine that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are not already working to provide it. It is politically acceptable for the rebels discreetly to receive Western arms and intelligence support, but Americans should never be firing the guns.

Michael C. Hudson is director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. He is also professor of international relations at the School of Foreign Service, at Georgetown University.

This article appeared in Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel on 10 March 2011. It can also be downloaded here: Insight 14 Hudson

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