A couple of weeks before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, I was having dinner with an American diplomat who had considerable experience in the Middle East. He warned me that the war would be a long, drawn-out mess.
"You don't think we can defeat Saddam Hussein's army?" I asked in surprise.
"That's the easy part," he replied. "His men will break and run. It's what comes after that that worries me."
Without Saddam's boot on its throat, he warned, Iraq would dissolve into an anarchic hellhole of sectarian religious warfare and ethnic strife, while an ambitious Iran moved to fill the regional power vacuum left behind. In other words, he pretty much predicted everything that has happened in the last eight years.
I didn't go to dinner with any diplomats last week, but nonetheless I was overwhelmed with a sense of deja boob. George W. Bush is no longer president, but you wouldn't know it from the headlong rush toward U.S. military involvement in Libya. President Obama is repeating the same mistake Bush did, jumping into a war in the Middle East without thinking through the end game. And like Bush, he's going to find himself - or, rather, us - mired in a bloody, expensive mess from which there will be no easy extrication.
Like Bush, Obama is very clear about who he wants to get rid of - in this case, Moammar Gadhafi, the murderous eccentric who has ruled Libya since seizing power in a military coup 42 years ago. The plan is to use American firepower to ground Gadhafi's air force, giving an armed rebel force a chance to depose him.
And like Bush, Obama gets a lot vaguer when asked who will replace Gadhafi if the plan works. The word "democracy" gets invoked, warmly and fuzzily, as if things will automatically sort themselves out to everybody's satisfaction once Gadhafi is no longer around to thwart Libya's fundamentally Jeffersonian instincts.
Really? How can anybody who has watched events unfold in Afghanistan and Iraq the past decade think that "democracy" will automatically sprout from the ruins of a war in an authoritarian Middle Eastern country with no historical experience of the concept? Far more likely is that one of the armed factions of the anti-Gadhafi rebels winds up in charge.
Nobody really understands the composition and internal dynamics of that rebel force. It's fractured by ethnic loyalties to the 30 or so major Libyan tribes as well as riddled with both political opportunists who've deserted Gadhafi's government and the same Muslim fanatics whom - in case the Obama White House has forgotten - we're at war with in two other Islamic countries.
Eastern Libya, the center of the anti-Gadhafi insurgency, has been a major breeding ground for Osama bin Laden's forces. An anti-terrorist center at West Point, after studying captured personnel records, concluded that on a per capita basis, no country in the world contributed more fighters to al-Qaeda's operations in Iraq than Libya - and the majority came from the country's east.
So it's not surprising that Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, the most prominent of the anti-Gadhafi military commanders, has admitted that he fought against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In a new world record for speedy political makeovers, Hasidi was an American prisoner for six years after being captured in Pakistan in 2002. Now he's our fair-haired boy, though he retains a certain residual affection for his old cave-mates from Afghanistan. "Members of al-Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader," he told an Italian newspaper recently. And in an interview with The New York Times, Hasidi said that while the Sept. 11 attacks were unfortunate, nobody should forget bin Laden's "good points," presumably including his wish to return the world to the seventh century under fundamentalist Islamic rule.
It's men like this that we are potentially placing in power with Obama's Libyan intervention. The silver lining, if you want to see it that way, is that the intervention may not work. No-fly zones like the one Obama wants to impose can't, by themselves, topple governments. Three U.S. presidential administrations kept a no-fly zone over Iraq in place for 12 years, with American planes flying hundreds of thousands of sorties to enforce it, without dislodging Saddam. Ultimately U.S. troops had to finish the job.
We may be headed for another prolonged standoff, with Gadhafi coiled in the desert like a wounded snake, resuming the efforts he abandoned in 2003 to develop - dare I say it? - weapons of mass destruction. What's that old saying about those who don't learn lessons from history?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at email@example.com.