RSS
Libya and the question of intervention: 6 precedents
Commentators reach for the history books in the debate over whether the West should use military force against Moammar Gadhafi
U.S. troops in Bosnia in 1998: American involvement in the Bosnian war followed NATO's initiation of a no-fly zone, which some say is how Western intervention in Libya might play out.
U.S. troops in Bosnia in 1998: American involvement in the Bosnian war followed NATO's initiation of a no-fly zone, which some say is how Western intervention in Libya might play out.
Corbis
A

lthough the world's eyes are now focused on Japan and Bahrain, civil unrest continues to rock Libya. Moammar Gadhafi has defied international calls to step down and is reportedly using all his military might to crush rebel strongholds. As the violence escalates, Western leaders are mulling some kind of intervention, with a no-fly zone among the possible courses of action. There's hardly agreement on whether a no-fly zone could work — and many are reaching for the history books to back up their argument. Here, a list of six countries where Western intervention was hotly debated — and what those countries can teach us about Libya:

1. BOSNIA
What the West did: After years of inaction as civil war raged between Bosnia's Serbs and Croats, NATO forces bombarded Serbian targets in 1995, spurred by a civilian massacre at Srebrenica. The siege of Sarajevo ended, and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic signed a peace treaty soon thereafter.
How it relates to Libya: This may be the "most useful" analogy for the dilemma now facing the United States, says Robert E. Hunter at Foreign Affairs. NATO had to act in Bosnia to assert its control of European "security and cooperation" — and the same calculus applies to Libya and the Middle East. NATO first operated a no-fly zone, then carried out strategic bombings — a "relatively straightforward military proposition." The West must use it again now.

2. KOSOVO
What the West did: NATO was forced to act against Milosevic once again in 1999, when the leader — by that time president of the Yugoslav republic — attempted to drive the Albanian Serbs out of Kosovo. NATO gave support to the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, and bombarded Yugoslav targets from the air in the spring of 1999. Milosevic withdrew his forces from Kosovo soon after.
How it relates to Libya: The victory in Kosovo proved that we could seal a tyrant's defeat "without committing any combat troops of our own," says Max Boot in The Wall Street Journal. By providing arms and training to the rebel forces in Libya, and bombing select targets ourselves, "we could deliver the same kind of potent combined-arms punch" that drove Milosevich out of Kosovo.

3. ROMANIA
What the West did: As the Romanian people overthrew the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989, the U.S. remained virtually silent. In the end, the Romanians toppled the megalomaniac Ceausescu themselves.
How it relates to Libya: Gadhafi is undoubtedly having his "Ceausescu moment," says Christopher Hitchens at Slate, descending into "paranoia, megalomania, and hysteria." If Obama followed in the footsteps of then-Secretary of State James Baker (who had offered "hypothetical" support to the Soviet Union during Romania's unrest), and asked the Russians and Chinese to renounce their support of Gadhafi, who is to say it wouldn't be successful? "We cannot know this if such a speech is never made or even contemplated."

4. SOMALIA
What the West did: The U.N. attempted to intervene in Somalia's civil war from 1993 to 1995, in a series of failed operations that included the savage Battle of Mogadishu (immortalized in the film Black Hawk Down). After this defeat, the U.S. decided to pull out its troops and the rest of the allied forces soon followed. The civil war continues to this day. 
How it relates to Libya: Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, has warned that Libya risks becoming a Somalia-type failed state unless the European Union backs the rebels fighting against Gadhafi's regime. We must "avoid having a country that finds itself in the position of Somalia, at one time, with no one in charge and no one to represent it." France is the only country to so far recognize the Libyan rebel leadership as the sole legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.

5. IRAQ
What the West did: A "coalition of the willing" led by the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, and has been attempting to keep order ever since.
How it relates to Libya: The case for war in Libya echoes the arguments marshaled for Iraq, says Ross Douthat at The New York Times. "America's credibility is on the line. The Libyan people deserve our support. Deposing Gadhafi will strike a blow for democracy and human rights." Didn't we learn anything from Iraq? We had a no-fly zone there, too, back in 1991. "It was just a stepping-stone to further escalation: Bombing campaigns, invasion, occupation, and nation-building." That's what may end up happening again if we bumble into Libya.

6. EGYPT
What the West did: France, Israel, and Britain attempted to retake the Suez Canal from Egypt and depose President Nasser in 1956. However, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower refused to support the invasion, and the three smaller countries were forced to withdraw.
How it relates to Libya: As President Obama dithers over Libya, says Gavin Hewitt at the BBC, some in Europe are now mulling whether to go it alone — just as they did in Suez. The result then was a "humiliation" for all concerned, which may now make Europe "shy of asserting its power." But if the Libyan dictator clings to power, "Europe will have to ask itself a tough question — did it fail the Arab spring?"

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week