Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the U.S. has intervened several times in the Muslim world. Some of the actions have turned out better than popularly assumed, and some have turned into disasters with relatively little coverage.
Last month, the media used the tenth anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq to reopen the debate on the war, largely assuming a point of view of defeat. Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded this week in The Washington Post to argue that the U.S. won an important regional ally in Iraq, and ended a brutal dictatorship to boot.
Plus, Maliki objects to the assumption that the U.S. lost Iraq. "Despite all the problems of the past decade," Maliki wrote, "the overwhelming majority of Iraqis agree that we're better off today than under Hussein's brutal dictatorship." The U.S., meanwhile, also gained greater influence through its strategic partnership with Baghdad — a partnership, Maliki emphasized, and not "a protectorate of the United States."
So much navel-gazing attended the tenth-anniversary observations of the Iraq invasion — and understandably so. But there seems to be little navel-gazing for a more recent intervention that has much more relevance to today's crises in the region. In 2011, Barack Obama pushed NATO into a war with Moammar Gadhafi, based on a "responsibility to protect" civilians at risk for military attacks by the regime in Tripoli.
At first, the U.S. led the air war on Libya to prevent an assault by Gadhafi's forces on Benghazi, and later turned over the offensive missions to NATO. Within a short period of time, however, NATO broadened its mandate to include attacking Gadhafi's forces wherever they stood, as well as on the command and control assets. The West armed militias and provided them with critical support, enforced no-fly zones over their operations, and gave them enough power to overthrow the regime.
All of this took place without having put any substantial NATO ground forces in Libya to assert any control over the arms and militias that replaced the Libyan regime. The Obama administration bragged openly about the successful deposing of Gadhafi, comparing the strategy favorably to the Iraq War. My colleague at The Week, Daniel Larison, warned presciently in October 2011 that the victory heralded by the White House was a disaster waiting to happen, and that Syria would absorb the fallout:
Contrary to the hope that Libya would provide a deterrent to regime violence elsewhere, the political fallout from the war has stalled any international response to Syria's crackdown. By exceeding the U.N. mandate they received in March, the U.S. and its allies have poisoned emerging democratic powers such as India and Brazil against taking any action in other countries. Libya has confirmed every skeptic's worst fears that in practice, the "responsibility to protect" is little more than a pretext for toppling vulnerable governments.
A few months later, Larison predicted with even greater accuracy the next move of the newly-liberated Islamist terror networks in eastern Libya.
But the Libyan war's worst impact may have occurred outside of Libya. The neighboring country of Mali, which also happens to support U.S. counter-terrorist efforts in western Africa, has been roiled by a new Tuareg insurgency fueled by the influx of men and weapons after Gadhafi's defeat, providing the Tuareg rebels with much more sophisticated weaponry than they had before. This new upheaval benefits al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), and the Tuareg uprising threatens the territorial integrity of Mali. The rebellion has also displaced nearly 200,000 civilians in a region that is already at risk of famine, and refugees from Mali are beginning to strain local resources in Niger, where most of them have fled. "Success" in Libya is creating a political and humanitarian disaster in Mali and Niger.
Terrorist networks in eastern Libya, which had once provided al Qaeda in Iraq with thousands of suicidal recruits, had barely been controlled by Gadhafi; after his fall, they took over the entire area. Western nations, including our NATO partners, bailed out of the same Benghazi the intervention had been designed to protect, and the U.S. lost its consulate and four Americans to a terrorist attack there. The terrorist networks then turned their attention to neighboring Mali and sacked Timbuktu, forcing the French to stage a military intervention to keep al Qaeda from creating a terrorist state.
One might think that because of this, the doctrine of disengaged interventions had been completely discredited. Not so. The U.S. continues to mull over a replay of the Libya intervention in Syria, where the tyrant Bashar al-Assad is trying to retain his grip on power in the middle of a civil war. Politicians in both parties have urged President Obama to arm the rebels, fund the opposition, and/or impose no-fly zones to cripple Assad's military capabilities.
Once again, however, this intervention would end up benefiting the same enemies we have fought since 9/11 — al Qaeda and its affiliates. The leading militia in the Syrian opposition is Jabhat al-Nusra, which the State Department belatedly added to its list of terrorist organizations last year. The Nusra Front has been imposing strict shari'a law every place it "liberates," as The Washington Post reported three weeks ago. This week, Jabhat al-Nusra made it official by declaring a merger with al Qaeda in Iraq.
That brings us back to our "sovereign partner" in Baghdad. In the same essay, Maliki marveled at how the U.S. could possibly consider siding with the Syrian opposition when the U.S. and Iraq are trying to stamp out its affiliates across the border. "We have been mystified by what appears to be the widespread belief in the United States that any outcome in Syria that removes President Bashar al-Assad from power will be better than the status quo," Maliki wrote. "A Syria controlled in whole or part by al Qaeda and its affiliates — an outcome that grows more likely by the day — would be more dangerous to both our countries than anything we've seen up to now." To press his point, Maliki pointed to another minimal-footprint intervention of a generation earlier. "Americans should remember," Maliki warned, "that an unintended consequence of arming insurgents in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets was turning the country over to the Taliban and al Qaeda."
The outcome in Libya, and its impact throughout the Sahel, should be lesson enough. A similar outcome in Syria could force NATO to conduct real invasions of an al-Qaeda-held Lebanon and perhaps another invasion of Iraq to keep the democratic government in Baghdad in place. Perhaps American lawmakers and media figures should spend more time talking with our sovereign partner in Iraq.