The Libyan Intervention and Syria

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Walter Russell Mead makes no sense when dealing with Syria and Libya.

Walter Russell Mead makes a very odd argument here:

Not to harp on the same sad note over and over again, but the West could have been much more effective in averting the more dangerous and devastating disaster in Syria had it not intervened in Libya first. This is not to say that solving Syria would have been simple absent the toppling of Qaddafi. But statesmanship is all about making prudent choices, and the choice we made was anything but. Qaddafi’s fall has left Libya an unstable question mark and has created new problems in Mali and beyond. The consequences of the Libyan intervention dissipated the political capital of the interventionist wing of the Obama administration; even the noblest and most multilateral Wilsonians can launch only so many wars in a presidential term. And by choosing to intervene in Libya while making lots of empty boasts and vain noises about our commitment to universal human rights and principles, we encouraged the Syrians to believe we would help them at the same time we made help less likely. This has cost both us and the Syrians much already; the bill will continue to mount.

Look, I distrust Wilsonians as much as the next guy, but none of this makes any sense.

First of all, the Syrian revolution didn't take its impetus from Obama administration rhetoric but from Assad's oppression. Moreover, it was only well into the Syrian revolution that the general public began to notice that the Libyan intervention hadn't gone as well as advertised (basically after the Benghazi consulate attack). When Gaddafi was hauled out of his sewer pipe and sodomized with a knife, the Obama administration was patting itself on the back for waging a smarter war. That's the kind of hubris that tends to lead to more interventions -- not fewer.

It also strains credulity for Mead to suggest that it was somehow a (non-existent) Libyan war fatigue that stayed the administration's hand in Syria and not the objectively different circumstances at play. Syria was (and is) a tougher nut to crack: the costs of intervention are significantly higher than in Libya. Syria has more great power support than Libya did and the regime has a much more robust defense establishment than Libya.

But what makes Mead's argument all the more untenable is that he accurately describes the history of U.S. intervention in the Mideast as misguided and more often producing negative consequences, then suggests that the U.S. should nonetheless "do more" in Syria so that things would be better:

A more “selfish” policy—doing less in Libya and more in Syria—would likely have had better strategic and humanitarian results than the dog’s dinner of a policy that we have actually followed.

Of course, we're not told what "doing more" in Syria means nor given any reason to believe why it would be better. Chances are, if Mead's description of U.S. actions in the region are accurate, it wouldn't be better. It would make things worse -- a dog's dinner on a much wider scale. Yet in his odd zeal to slam the Obama administration over Libya, Mead twists himself into arguing that we should make an even bigger mistake in Syria. Mead insists on presenting a partisan lesson about Libya (Obama = incompetent Wilsonian) instead of actually digesting the upshot of his argument, which is that Libya (and Iraq, and Afghanistan) prove that U.S. interventions in the Mideast are dangerous and counterproductive and need to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

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