Libya: lessons, lessons, everywhere

After the Libya analogies, come the Libya lessons, and the rhetorical battles over the “right” and “wrong” implications of Libya for just about everything and anything. The Arab spring, NATO, US power, European economies, militant political Islam, tribalism, social media, autocracy…the list goes on and on.

As The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley aptly notes, before he plunges into his own judgments on which lessons to draw: “A large industry of analysis is already producing “lessons from Libya”. There are lessons that appear sound. There are lessons that sound attractive, but turn out on closer inspection to be dangerously wrong.”

I’ll raise you my ‘Libya is a lesson plan for limited US involvement in military interventions‘ and see your ‘Libya is not a lesson in how the West should intervene‘.

Any conclusion about a ‘Libya lesson’ is a particular interpretation about what has happened in the last six months – what worked, what didn’t, and therefore ‘x’ is what we should or shouldn’t do in the future, in any situation that bears some resemblance.

But Libya is just one data point in the above litany of possible lenses and contexts in which to view the implications of the Libyan revolution. Events often provide little more than reflections of whatever we want to see in them. I think Stephen Walt has this right when he says:

“More importantly, we also ought to guard against the common tendency to draw big policy conclusions from a single case, especially when we don’t have good theories to help us understand the differences between different outcomes.

“Looking forward, the policy-relevant question is whether it is a good idea for powerful outside powers to use military force to cause regime change in weak states whose leaders are misbehaving in some way. This phenomenon has become known as “foreign-imposed regime change” (FIRC)…If Libya turns out well but the vast majority of FIRCs were failures, for example, then a prudent policymaker would be wary of trying to repeat the Libyan operation elsewhere. (The logic is the same in reverse, of course, our failures in Iraq do not mean that all preventive wars are wrong, even if that one obviously was)”

There’s a saying about generals “fighting the last war”. And whatever conclusions and lessons about Libya are absorbed by decisionmakers, my money will be on this being the template rolled out for the next one.

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