Lessons of Libya (and Syria, and, Some Day, Iran)
First, for those trying to figure out what's going on in Libya: this sort of event does not lend itself to “live” coverage. Wars and insurrections are very foggy, and reporters cannot possibly check the information they are given. Pictures on your screen are as likely to deceive as to inform, as you’ve perhaps learned in the past few days. The pictures told you that Gaddafi’s regime had fallen, that the rebels were in control of Tripoli, and that the Gaddafi kids were captured. Not so.
This is not necessarily the result of “bad reporting.” It’s built into the whole business of round-the-clock tv news “coverage.” The networks have to put video on the screen and they have to say something about the videos. We historians are better placed. We can wait and then explain it retrospectively. Which is easier, but not automatically more accurate.
So the first lesson is: wait. When it’s over, we’ll probably know that. Meanwhile, there are people with a very strong interest in convincing the outside world that gray is black or white. Live with the gray. Mostly things are gray in a fog.
Second, a lot of the language used to describe some of the forces in play is quite misleading. You’ll have your own by now; my own favorite is “elite forces.” Gaddafi’s EF turned out to be just the usual Middle Eastern gunmen/thugs. In older times, he had very sexy East German female body guards, which was much more fun.
Consider Saddam’s EF: the vaunted Republican Guards, who disappeared in a nanosecond when General Mattis’s Marines advanced on Baghdad. Or consider the Iranian EF that were supposed to take on the Saudi military in Bahrain. They scampered back to mother as quickly as they could.
The other very misleading words are “control,” or “in control.” How many times was one side or the other said to “control” Libyan territory, only to be told that the situation had flipped within hours?
It’s better to suspend judgment. Yes, it’s easy for me to say, but the journalists and the policy makers have to reach conclusions. They have my sympathy. Really.
Part of the confusion comes from bad intelligence, and thus the third lesson is that, if you want to play an effective role in war and/or revolution, you had better get some relationships established before the fog rolls in. We were very late to this game, in part because a succession of American administrations mostly limited their efforts to having good relations with the top guy and his henchmen. We have virtually zero intimacy with the Iranian opposition (at least the people who matter, the ones inside Iran), and, while we are trying hard to catch up elsewhere (think Libya and Syria), and many of those efforts are well done by talented Americans, we’re at a real disadvantage.
Remember when Condi Rice proclaimed that we would henceforth reach out to the peoples of Middle Eastern tyrannies? That we’d have diplomats all over those countries? I don’t believe it happened. At least she had the right words: we have to stand with people who want freedom, and we have to be able to sort out real freedom fighters from those who want to trick us or those who just want to take the money and live it up. That takes time. So our efforts to catch up will often fail, we’ll end up supporting the wrong people and turning our backs on some potential heroes.
Fourth, dithering makes things worse, and we dithered over Libya and Syria, and at best — at best — we are still dithering over Iran. You may recall that I wrote a blog post early on in the Libyan adventure in which I said we should bomb the Libyan Air Force. That would have shortened the war, don’t you think? And it would have saved a lot of lives, especially in the neighborhood of Benghazi. Remember that the fear of mass slaughter there was what produced the Obama Doctrine: Lead With the Behind.
Fifth, and finally, that doctrine is literally back-asswards. It’s great to work with friends and allies; every president knows that (indeed, when the real history of the Iraq War is written, most analysts will conclude that Bush waited too long because of the requests of allies, especially the Brits). But you’re more likely to put together a coalition if you lead, rather than pushing others into the front ranks.
Ask the Marines. Their officers lead from the front, and they’re the best we’ve got. If you’re looking for elite forces, just go to Quantico or Pendleton, or to the Special Forces folks at Bragg or down in Tampa.
Let’s hope we don’t need them in Syria or Iran.