The Obama administration is wise to back into a military engagement in Libya rather cautiously. We have learned over the past couple of decades that it is deceptively easy for the world's only superpower to topple objectionable regimes—but a good deal harder to replace them with something better.
Since 1994 the United States has invaded Haiti twice, forced an end to civil war in Bosnia, driven the Serb government out of Kosovo, and toppled the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. It then took 10 difficult and expensive years to stabilize the situations in Bosnia and Kosovo—and these are the two success stories. Iraq continues to be racked by terrorist violence, Afghanistan is in a still mounting civil war, and Haiti remains a basket case.
We also have learned the validity of what former Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled the Pottery Barn rule, "you break it, you own it." George W. Bush did his level best to avoid being drawn into prolonged nation-building commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq but found that stinting on resources early on was an even more expensive way of pacifying and reconstructing these societies.
Of all the Arab societies currently in fermentation, Libya is the least likely to make a smooth transition to democracy, given the weakness of its institutions, absence of civil society, and lack of any experience whatsoever with representative government. This is not an excuse to allow Qaddafi to hang on to power, but it is a good reason to limit America's responsibility for what comes afterward.
It has been argued that imposition of a "no fly zone" over Libya would represent a rather minimal engagement, and thus entail a minimal commitment to any long term role. This might prove true, if the rebel forces, so encouraged, were then able to prevail. Yet our earlier experience with "no fly zones" in Bosnia and Iraq suggests that such measures are seldom decisive, and are rather precursors to more substantial and enduring military commitments.
On the other hand, allowing Qaddafi to suppress the current revolt would also have very negative consequences, undermining the prospects for peaceful and positive transitions in both neighboring states, Egypt and Tunisia. Libya would again become a pariah state, its leader branded an international outlaw, its oil revenues once again used to destabilize and radicalize susceptible regimes in the region and beyond.
A weak and indecisive American military engagement could simply delegitimize the rebellion without ensuring its success. The United States remains highly unpopular throughout the Arab and, to a lesser extent, Muslim world. Qaddafi's local and regional credentials could be strengthened if he were seen battling American forces. If the United States decides to intervene militarily on behalf of the rebels, therefore, it must be determined to ensure their success, whatever level of engagement that may require in the end.
Given these considerations, it is important that any American intervention be clearly and unanimously requested by the rebel leadership, supported by as many Arab and African governments as possible, endorsed by the larger international community, ideally in a UN Security Council resolution, and take place in a broad multinational context. Such backing and participation will help minimize the negative local and regional reaction to a more purely American intervention, and also limit American responsibility for the aftermath, ensuring that support for reform and reconstruction of Libyan society will be seen as a broad multinational effort, not a largely American led, financed and manned operation.
Forging such a broad international consensus behind intervention will take time, and it is possible that the rebellion will falter before such a coalition emerges, thereby either forcing Washington's hand prematurely or losing the opportunity for effective action. This requires a delicate balancing act on the part of the Obama administration, which so far it seems to be performing effectively.
James Dobbins is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org and GlobalSecurity.org on March 15, 2011.