This year sees the 25th anniversary of the publication of Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, a text on how best to use lessons of the past. It provides a corollary to the aphorism that those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it. This is especially relevant in Libya, where history has been enlisted to make the case both for and against military intervention.
Those making the moral case for action, including President Barack Obama, often cite the need to avoid repeating the failure to intervene in Rwanda in 1994. Those arguing for no-fly zones recall northern Iraq, or the former Yugoslavia. But none of these is an exact fit. Unlike Rwanda, Libyan society is not structured along a single or dominant ethnic faultline. And Muammer Gaddafi's threat to show no mercy to his opponents might have been just that: a threat, within the context of a civil uprising, to intimidate those who opposed him with arms. It was not necessarily a threat to every man, woman and child in Benghazi.
The case can be made that the recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are more relevant. There, grand schemes for remaking societies fared poorly when they encountered local realities. It also proved difficult and expensive to turn early military victories into lasting outcomes – just as we now learn that no-fly zones cannot control what happens on the ground.
Already in Libya, what began as a limited no-fly zone is becoming something more ambitious. Still, we are where we are. The question is now less whether we were right to get involved along the lines we did but “what do we do now?”
An immediate ceasefire and an end to all attacks against civilians – as demanded by UN Security Council resolution 1973 – is an unlikely scenario. But what if Colonel Gaddafi actually did comply? The US, unlike the UN resolution, is calling for him to be ousted. Would the Obama administration accept the continued existence of his regime? And what if his forces respected the ceasefire but the rebels did not?
All of this is improbable, if for no other reason than civil wars rarely just stop. Three scenarios are more likely. The first is continued fighting, with no side striking a decisive blow. Here the no-fly zone would have levelled the playing field, as shown by the rebels retaking the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf on Sunday – but with civil war prolonged. More suffering and loss of life would be the result. It would be ironic, even tragic, if this were the outcome of an action justified on humanitarian grounds. But it is possible.
It is also possible that diplomacy could then bring an end to the fighting, but that too is a long shot. Instead, the international community will more likely have to consider escalating its support for the regime's opponents. This could happen directly, by introducing foreign forces, or indirectly, by providing arms to the rebels.
Scenario two is the fall of Col Gaddafi's government. This could follow support for the rebels, or the implosion of the regime. But here history suggests the opposition is more likely to splinter, once it had accomplished the one objective that united it: hostility to the regime.
If the regime did fall, a foreign peacekeeping force or something more capable would almost certainly have to be sent to Libya to provide security. Awkwardly, such a presence is currently explicitly banned by the UN resolution authorising the no-fly zone. It is also unclear who would provide the troops, or pick up the costs. A bigger worry is whether the opposition could transform itself into a national entity, able to rule in the interests of the Libyan people. But we simply don't know a great deal about the people we are siding with, so it is just as plausible to imagine some rebels breaking off, and introducing an intolerant Islamist rule in part or all of the country.
The third scenario sees Libya's regime finding a way to prevail. In the short term the world would then have to negotiate. In the long term the west would face a more difficult choice: try to overthrow the regime through covert action and sanctions, or just modify its behaviour with economic and other measures. This was, after all, the approach that persuaded Col Gaddafi to give up weapons of mass destruction.
There are too many actors and variables at work in Libya to predict how this military intervention will play out. No one can know what will come next, much less what will come after that. But history suggests that success will be hard to achieve. And if it comes, it will take more time, prove more costly, and have more unexpected consequences than many originally anticipated.
The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.