As the war in Libya drags on, the United States faces a familiar predicament: Why, despite possessing overwhelming military superiority over any foe, does it have such a hard time using the threat of force to push much weaker dictators around?
This isn't a new problem. During the 1990s, the United States and its allies found it much harder than expected to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to stop repressing opposition groups and open suspected weapons facilities to inspectors, to protect civilians in Bosnia, to force Somali warlords to stop pillaging humanitarian relief efforts, and to compel Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to end his violent ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo.
A decade ago, we wrote a book pondering this very puzzle. The short answer was that political constraints often bind the United States and its coalition partners much more tightly than their adversaries, and in ways that offset advantages in raw military power. Those painfully learned lessons apply more than ever in Libya today and help explain why Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi isn't flinching against the world's most sophisticated military forces -- despite his near-complete international isolation.