Libya's Unintended Consequences

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Author: Ross Douthat
Date: July 8, 2012
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Article
Length: 817 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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ALMOST nine months after the world watched Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi meet his maker at the hands of a camera-phone-wielding mob, our intervention in Libya's civil war has vanished down the American memory hole. To the intervention's champions, this is no doubt regarded as proof of the operation's great success: We toppled a tyrant, assisted our European allies, and squandered neither American lives nor domestic political capital in the process.

In North Africa, though, matters aren't quite so simple. When the United States intervened on behalf of Libya's rebels, skeptics worried that we could end up splitting the country in two, empowering Islamic radicals and creating a bigger humanitarian disaster than the one we hoped to forestall.

The worst-case situation has not come to pass in Libya itself. But thanks to the ripple effects from Colonel Qaddafi's fall, it's well on its way to happening in nearby Mali.

Not much attention has been paid to these events, because although Mali has more than twice Libya's population, it is neither oil-rich nor strategically important. It is the kind of place whose politics is covered briefly in the back pages of foreign policy magazines, in between capsule book reviews and want ads for Kissinger Associates.

But northeastern Mali is part of the same Saharan region that encompasses southern Libya, which means weapons and fighters from the Libyan war have moved easily across Algeria into Mali since Colonel Qaddafi's fall, transforming a long-simmering insurgency into a multifront civil war.

Mali's insurgents are mostly Tuaregs, a Berber people whose homeland cuts across several national borders. This spring, their uprising won them effective control of the northern half of Mali, which they renamed Azawad. The central government's weak response, meanwhile, led to a coup in Mali's capital, Bamako, which replaced the civilian president with a junta that promised to take the fight to the rebels more effectively.

That hasn't happened; instead, the rebels have taken the fight to one another. The Tuareg insurgency included an Islamist element, known as Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), which is affiliated with a jihadi group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In the last month, Ansar Dine's fighters have seized the breakaway region's major cities, ousting their erstwhile allies and embarking on a Taliban-style campaign of vandalism against the region's monuments.

So Mali today looks a bit like Libya did in early 2011, except with a more obvious jihadi presence: You have a weakened authoritarian government governing half the country, a dubious and divided rebellion trying to rule the other, and a humanitarian crisis looming for the civilians caught in between.

But in this case, the civilians are on their own. There is absolutely no possibility that the United States, France and Britain will intervene on their behalf.

The point of this analogy is not to indict supporters of the Libyan operation for hypocrisy. Most advocates of an armed humanitarianism acknowledge that not all crises can be addressed. You do what you can where you can, they argue, and the stars simply aligned in Libya in a way that they have not for a poor, landlocked, low-importance state like Mali.

But at the very least, the intimate connection between the two civil wars should complicate the Libya hawks' easy moralism. If interventionists want to claim credit for saving lives in Benghazi, they need to acknowledge that their choices may have ended up costing lives in Timbuktu. If they want to point to the immediate consequences of the Libyan war as vindication for a ''responsibility to protect'' doctrine, they need to acknowledge the second-order consequences for people who will never have the benefits of our protection.

From a strategic perspective, too, toppling a dictator in one country looks rather less impressive if his fall helps give rise to a theocracy nearby. Mali may seem strategically inconsequential today, but so did Afghanistan when the Taliban first swept to power. And Mali is only one example of the spillover from Colonel Qaddafi's ouster. As Nicolas Pelham wrote in the New York Review of Books last month, ''Libya's turmoil is acquiring continental significance,'' influencing insurgencies from Chad to Sinai.

The goal of the Obama White House throughout our Libyan quasi war was to keep our intervention as limited as possible. In this, it largely succeeded. But just because our involvement was limited does not mean that the long-term consequences will be limited as well. War has a life of its own: insurgencies spread, weapons intended for one cause end up in the service of another, and turmoil is rarely contained by lines drawn on a map.

''You know where you begin,'' the foreign policy sage George Kennan remarked during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. ''You never know where you are going to end.'' This is the lesson that the ripples from Libya hold for American policy makers. There may be limited interventions, but there are no small wars.

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