Lies in the air of Libya’s spring — The return of ‘unintended consequences’

The rising concern in Washington, London, and other allied capitals over what is happening in Libya is reminiscent of concerns about Iraq once it became clear that the aftermath of removing Saddam would not be a cakewalk for the U.S.-led coalition. This concern is best seen in the increasing number of U.S., UK, and French officials — named and anonymous — and pro-war journalists who are talking about the possibility of encountering “unintended consequences” from the Libyan intervention.

In Iraq, as all recall, the resistance to the U.S.-led coalition was described as an “unintended consequence,” a phrase meant to suggest that what happened in Iraq was not predictable. We also have heard the same term used to the same purpose in Afghanistan. In both cases, the phrase is meant to mislead the voting public and to disguise the failure of both Western leaders and their generals to have done even a cursory review of the history of foreign interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan before they launched their own.

Since 2003, nothing that has happened in Iraq is much different than what British forces experienced there after World War I, and absolutely nothing that U.S. and NATO forces have encountered in Afghanistan is alien to the experiences of the Soviet army, the British army (twice), and the forces of Alexander the Great. In two wars that have cost the U.S. and its allies in excess of a trillion dollars, a pre-war investment of a few hundred dollars in history books and military memoirs would have precisely detailed what Western militaries would encounter in Iraq and Afghanistan. More important, the works would have recounted the strategies and actions that failed to bring foreigners victory in either place. Because civil and military leaders did not prepare in the most rudimentary historical terms before invading, both wars are being lost by Western militaries who seem to believe they are the first to walk on what is very well-worn ground.

All this is to say that when we hear the somber phrase “unintended consequences” there is no reason to believe that such consequences could not have been predicted, and at time easily predicted. In Libya, no less than in Iraq and Afghanistan, the stable of coming disasters that Western officials will describe as “unintended consequences” will have been fully predictable. Here are just three:

  1. There is no reason — logical or historical — to believe that air power alone can win much of anything. Air power always fails to achieve victory, unless it is used to support ground forces, which are the real key to any successful military operation. When this becomes clear in the next weeks or months, and the question of introducing Western ground forces is debated, any assertion from Washington or London that ground forces are needed because “Qaddafi was tougher than we thought” will be a facade to cover the perfectly predictable failure of air power alone to bring victory.
  2. There is good reason to assess that whatever military backbone there is in the Libyan resistance comes not primarily from defectors from Qaddafi’s military, but rather from current or former Islamist mujahideen. For nearly 30 years, young Libyan males have been prominent in number and talent in Islamist insurgencies in Afghanistan — against the Soviets and the U.S.-led coalition — Iraq, the Balkans, Central Asia, the North Caucasus and elsewhere. In addition, Libyan Islamist groups have long struggled against Qaddafi’s regime inside Libya, especially in the country’s east. Indeed, one of the reasons Washington associated with and supported Qaddafi after 9/11 was because he was delighted to kill, persecute, and incarcerate Libyan Islamists at home and help us attack others overseas. In this regard, Qaddafi, like Egypt’s Mubarak, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, and Yemen’s Salih, was a key element in Washington’s counter-Islamist strategy. After U.S.-led forces lose their political leaders’ war in Libya, and it becomes clearer that we gave air cover to men who share bin Laden’s goal of driving the U.S. from the region and destroying Israel, we will hear Obama, McCain, Kerry, and their fellow European war-mongers complain about “intelligence failures.” They will assert that those “failures” yielded the unintended consequence of U.S. and Western aerial support that ensured not only Qaddafi’s survival but also the survival and re-invigoration of Libya’s Islamist mujahideen. This claim will be a lie to hide what was and is a perfectly predictable outcome.
  3. No one in the Muslim world will be fooled by the insistence of President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Ambassador Rice, and Senators McCain and Kerry that the war on Libya is not being led by the United States. Having witnessed on television two U.S.-led wars on Iraq; the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan; drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen; and numerous other examples of impressive U.S. military power, Muslims will perceive — and perception is reality — that only the U.S. military could manage, supply, logistically administer, and coordinate the Western military offensive against Libya. As to the goal of “protecting innocent Libyans” so often stated by Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy, and the UN Secretary General, Muslims will reject that contention out of hand after seeing — in color and in real-time — U.S., British, and French warplanes killing their brethren in Libya, while several hundred miles to the east they simultaneously saw Israeli pilots flying U.S.-made aircraft on missions to kill Palestinians. After the offensive war against Libya sharply deepens Muslim hatred for the United States and its allies, Washington will be bemoan this fact as an unintended consequence and Secretary Clinton will blame it on bad public diplomacy. Nonsense. Intensifying Muslim hatred for the West — and especially for the U.S. government — was easily predictable before the first cruise missile landed near Tripoli. And this is something that “mad- dog Qaddafi” and Osama bin Laden knew with certainty, even if all the genius Ivy Leaguers who infest, confuse, and debilitate Washington did not.

There are another dozen examples of the claims of “unintended consequences” that Washington and its allies will make after their offensive air war on Libya fails and they either ignominiously acknowledge defeat or arrogantly forge ahead toward an even greater defeat by committing ground forces. Since 9/11, as I have argued elsewhere, Washington and its allies have been marching toward hell because they refuse — despite overwhelming and readily accessible evidence — to understand that their war with the Islamist movement is based on the mujahideen’s intense, religion-based motivation for self-defense which flows from the impact of U.S. and Western policies and actions in the Muslim world, and not from blind hatred for what Western societies think and how they behave at home. The West’s attack on Libya is proof positive that Washington and its allies remain abjectly ignorant of the Islamists’ motivation, and have chosen to studiously throw ever more fuel on a fire that may yet spread into a clash of civilizations.

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.