If you're playing buzzword bingo while President Barack Obama talks about why it's a good idea to lob a few missiles at Syria, I hope you haven't gotten a card with a space marked "Libya." That's a word the president hasn't uttered as he lobbies Congress to go along with an attack on Syria.
Libya, if you recall, was the president's last experiment in creating democracy through the innovative use of high explosives. It's now known as The Intervention That Dare Not Speak Its Name, because Libya is a complete mess that's getting worse by the day.
The idea was we'd fire a few rockets over Moammar Gadhafi's head to teach him a lesson about shooting civilians, then be on our way. No long war, no regime change, just a firm rap on the knuckles. Change the names Gadhafi and Libya to Assad and Syria, and it's practically identical to what Obama is saying now.
But nothing worked out the way the president said it would. U.S. involvement lasted eight months and cost $1 billion. The few rockets turned into hundreds of missile strikes and bombing runs. The assurances that we weren't planning a regime change - which rang hollow; you don't fire cruise missiles at somebody to signal your neutrality - ended in the capture and murder of Gadhafi by the rebels we supported.
Standing at the end of his trail of broken promises, Obama was far from abashed. "The Libyan intervention demonstrates what the international community can achieve when we stand together," he declared in August 2011, boasting that "the power of people striving for freedom can bring about a brighter day."
Those ringing words are practically the last the president has spoken about Libya, for good reason. If he gave a speech about the place today, it would probably sound more like a recent headline from the British newspaper The Independent: "We all thought Libya had moved on - it has, but into lawlessness and ruin."
Post-intervention Libya is a witch's cauldron of crime, corruption and terrorism. Armed militias roam the countryside like martial motorcycle gangs, shaking down anyone they please. Government security forces are too weak to do anything about it, and, in any event, are preoccupied with their own brigandage.
Civilians know better than to raise a peep: Three dozen who mounted a protest outside the barracks of a militia in eastern Libya a few weeks ago were killed on the spot. Human Rights Watch has barely been able to keep track of the wave of political assassinations. Even trivial political disputes escalate to mayhem - a surgeon who tried to carry out government orders to fire a hospital director was savagely beaten and then jailed by security forces.
Yet these may soon be regarded as Libya's good old days. Wildcat strikes by refinery workers have brought Libya's oil industry to a virtual halt. From the 1.6 billion barrels of oil a day the country pumped under Gadhafi, production has dropped to 150,000 a day, less than half of what's necessary just to pay government workers. What's left of the Libyan government is surviving on cash reserves, which officials say will run out by the end of the year. We'll see how the power of people striving for freedom copes with that.
All this chaos and suffering has not exactly enhanced the reputation of the Western powers who helped depose Gadhafi. Along with the assault that left four Americans dead in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, there have been terrorist attacks on British, French and European Union diplomats. Both the United States and Great Britain have pulled most of their diplomats out of Libya.
Obama, trying to make his case for attacking Syria, has said Congress needs to remember the lessons of World War II. I'd say the president needs to remember the lessons of Libya: that the Middle East is fraught with ancient religious, ethnic and tribal rivalries only dimly understood in the West. That they erupt in unpredictable and vicious ways when the balance of power is upset. And that there's probably a better way to deliver a prescription for peace and prosperity than in the payload of a Tomahawk missile.
Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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