So I was impressed to find a remarkably thoughtful op-ed on the subject in the New York Times a few weeks ago. I've never read anything from Professor Dr. Volker Perthes before, but this constitutes one of the more nuanced pieces I've seen on Syria since the crisis began. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on addressing the existential fears of Syrian minorities as a key element in any viable plan (whether incorporating military force or not).
On the other side of the ledger, on Saturday Ross Douthat penned an unfortunate and ill-informed piece on the alleged second-order effects of the intervention in Libya - that is to say, the current crisis in Mali. According to Douthat, the intervention in Libya sent heavily-armed Tuaregs who had been fighting for Qaddafi back into Mali, bolstering the ranks of the Tuareg rebellion - and this much is true. That bolstered rebellion in turn launched an offensive that quickly conquered the northern half of the country - also true. The Malian government fell to a military coup, and the divisions within the rebel ranks have allowed more radical elements to gain the upper hand, violently imposing a harsh version of Sharia and destroying important historical sites. All this is true, but Douthat's still wrong on two counts.
First, the weakness of the Malian government and security forces was not new, and it's hard to gauge the impact of Libyan weapons on the balance of power between the Tuareg rebels and the Malian Army when Malian soldiers were losing battles for lack of sufficient ammunition. The discontent among the soldiers who launched the coup didn't start with the renewed Tuareg rebellion, and as the speakers at an event in May emphasized, spill-over from Libya may have been the proximate trigger, but the Malian crisis had been brewing for a long time.* On this subject, Alma knows far more, and I hope she'll chime in.
Second and far more perniciously, Douthat draws a blatantly false parallel between Libya then and Mali now:
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.All of which is more or less true, but neglects to mention that - in contrast to Qaddafi - neither the Tuareg rebel factions nor the Malian government have embarked on systematic and widespread violence against civilians. There have been brutal human rights abuses on both sides, but there are no columns marching towards cities of more than 600K people with orders to kill every male between 17 and 40, as was the case with Benghazi.
I point this out because there seems to be a growing attempt by some to show up the alleged hypocrisy and capriciousness of interventions to prevent atrocities by equating any violence against civilians in conflicts with the exceptional cases in which they're being deliberately slaughtered. Douthat claims that's not his angle, but I notice that in assessing the impact of US actions on Malian politics, the US counter-terrorism programs that have been running for years don't merit even passing mention.
The Libya intervention was by no means perfect, and there's no question we should be cognizant of the potential unintended or downright perverse human and strategic consequences of any foreign policy initiative, military or otherwise. But in parsing the lessons of the Libya operation, let's try not to let our ideological perspectives completely corrupt our reading of facts. Or perhaps Douthat will take his own advice from January 2011 to heart:
We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them...But history makes fools of us all..Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.
* According to the speakers, US security assistance may have inadvertently contributed as well by encouraging the deployment of additional Malian security forces to the north in the absence of much political progress, thus increasing the day-to-day friction between the central government and Tuareg communities.