Updated, October 8 2011: For British Prime Minister David Cameron the answer seems to have been ‘Srebenica, 1995’. We haven’t had to wait years or decades for historians to trawl through private papers; instead, we have a little gem of insight from a Guardian investigation:
“One senior figure said that one memory stuck in Cameron’s mind: the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in July 1995…Cameron was only 28 at the time and working at Carlton Television. But the senior Whitehall source indicated that Srebrenica made a big impression on Cameron:
“”There was a very strong feeling at the top of this government that Benghazi could very easily become the Srebrenica of our watch. The generation that has lived through Bosnia is not going to be the pull up the drawbridge generation.””
In the public debate over intervention and what to do (and what not to do) in Libya, the heat of this debate is as much about the appropriate historical parallel as it is about the utility and practicalities of military force, legality, costs, endgames, and so on.
As Sesame Street and Big Bird teach us, one of these things is not like the other one.
Is Libya more like Kosovo? Less like Iraq? I myself suggested a couple of weeks ago some reasons for a Somalia analogy. Which analogy matters, because these lenses then help to define and redefine the present situation, and in doing so, favour particular courses of action. So policymakers and commentators battle over analogies (a ‘metaphor war’, as Roland Paris described debates leading up to the 1999 Kosovo intervention), arguing over the appropriate lessons to be drawn, and the misguided interpretations of others who favour other analogies. In Foreign Affairs, Micah Zenko has a go at four such myths drawn from the apparent lessons of the past:
“The first myth is that the combination of NATO airpower and a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) ground offensive drove Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo in 1999. Today, proponents of intervention in Libya, such as Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations and Peter Juul at the Center for American Progress, have advocated replicating this supposed success. They argue that Libyan rebel forces, fighting with close air support from Western fighter planes, could wage an effective ground offensive all the way to Tripoli and force Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi from power…
“…In the debate over whether, and how, to intervene in Libya, opponents and proponents called on historical examples to bolster their case. Too often, these examples were historically inaccurate and were misapplied to Libya’s unfolding civil war. If the legacy of recent uses of U.S. military force demonstrate anything, it is that regardless of whether the objective is to protect civilians on the ground, precipitate Qaddafi’s removal from power, or stabilize a postconflict Libya, more force, time, attention, and resources will be needed than the international community has thus far proven willing to commit.”
Whether such argument-by-analogy is desirable or not seems pretty moot. In all aspects of life there are rules of thumb that we use to characterize like and unlike situations, where the judgment of past choices as successes or failures affects our current calculations. Whether they be, for US foreign policymaking, Vietnam syndromes or Iraq syndromes, we face each situation not with a blank sheet of paper, but with a clutter of notes in the margins, faint imprints from previous sheets, and the scars of rips and tears.
Imperfect information is inevitable, but in trying to deal with the known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, we turn to the known knowns, and come up with conclusions that were ostensibly previously unknown knowns. And of course, what counts as what we know (“what we’ve learned”) is inexorably contested, subject to dispute, and in this process, reconstructing history in the light of the present. As these debates rumble on, what external powers contemplate doing is as much about the sands and skies between Tripoli and Benghazi, as it is about historical memories and collective interpretations.