How the Lessons of Iraq Paid Off In Libya

Generals fight the last war, and that’s a mistake. The international intervention in Libya has been backward-looking—but in an entirely different sense. It has been prosecuted with the memory of the Iraq war firmly in mind. Only this time the approach has been to view the last war as a negative example. The inter national coalition—and even the Libyan opposition—is doing pretty much the opposite of what was done in Iraq. As rough-and-ready rules of the road go, this is not a bad one to follow.

In deciding whether to intervene, President Obama was clearly trying to avoid the mistakes of Iraq. He insisted on a set of conditions before he would involve the U.S. in the operation. First, there had to be a local opposition movement that was willing and able to wage war against the dictator. Any international action had to be requested by the locals. Second, given the nature of the Arab world, it was important to gain regional legitimacy and ensure that outside intervention in Libya was not denounced as another example of Western imperialism in Muslim lands. Even Arab countries were drawn into the coalition. Third, a broader, legal legitimacy was sought through the U.N. And finally, European allies who were pressing for intervention were put on notice that the operation would have to be genuinely multilateral, with them bearing significant costs.

It’s important to recognize how different this is from Iraq, where the Bush Administration—either through arrogance or incompetence—got almost none of these conditions fulfilled. There were many paths to meeting some of them. Had U.N. weapons inspectors been given more time in the spring of 2003, the U.N. Security Council might well have endorsed the plan. Countries like India were seriously considering sending tens of thousands of peacekeeping troops, but only if there was a U.N.-blessed operation with a U.S. commander who also wore a U.N. hat (as was the case in Bosnia). But these were seen as petty, legalistic annoyances, and the operation felt like an American one from start to finish.

Nowhere are the lessons of Iraq clearer than in the attention to cost. The Bush Administration decided it would do whatever it took to prevail in Iraq. If that meant a vast invading force, so be it. If that meant spending many years longer than was originally planned, so be it. And if that meant a massive increase in forces to quell what had turned into a raging civil war, so be it.

With Libya, the Obama Administration was determined to pursue the operation only if the costs could be kept manageable and shared. At the start of the deliberations, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made clear that Libya was not a vital national interest of the U.S.’s, thus placing a limit on the costs the country would bear. And the Administration resisted a chorus of experts who urged the President to keep escalating in the hope of immediate victory. The President’s critics on the right were merciless in describing his strategy as weak, messy and likely to fail. “If policy doesn’t change in Libya, we could lose there,” opined Lindsey Graham. John McCain implied that the Obama approach—sanctions plus no-fly zone—could drag on for 12 years, as it did in Iraq. These same critics have now leaped to the airwaves to claim paternity for a victory they doubted only two weeks earlier. Some of history’s greatest generals have “led from behind,” and some of the most foolhardy ones have gotten too far out front.

The fact is that the Libyan operation has been remarkably cost-effective. The direct costs of the Iraq war so far are about $1 trillion, 5,000 American troops’ lives and 10,000 Iraqi soldiers’ lives. The direct costs of the Libya operation so far have been less than $1 billion, about 0.1% of what has been spent on Iraq—and with no American military casualties and minimal Libyan deaths.

Let’s be clear. The Libyan opposition and the international coalition may have gotten lucky. But they were also positioned to take advantage of favorable winds. And they will be likely to extend their luck if, as we enter the next, critical phase of the war, they follow the same dictum: Do the opposite of what was done in Iraq.

The official historian of the U.S. Army, Lieut. Colonel Isaiah Wilson, bluntly wrote of the Iraq war that “there was no Phase IV plan” to occupy and stabilize the country once the regime collapsed. The response of Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, when he was asked about chaos, looting and reprisal killings, was to shrug his shoulders and say, “Stuff happens.” The Libyan opposition appears to have studied this error closely and has been hard at work producing detailed plans for the postwar phase. It is trying to make sure that stuff doesn’t just happen in Libya.

In Iraq, within a few months of Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the military and began a de-Baathification of the government that purged administrators of all kinds—including sanitation experts and teachers. It also shut down most of Iraq’s state-owned companies, because these were seen as socialist enterprises unsuited to the new Iraq—which was to be a free-market paradise with a flat tax. The result of these three moves was to dislodge and disempower the long-standing ruling elite, who felt completely unwelcome in the new Iraq. They had the grievances and the means to help launch a resistance to the new order—and they did.

The National Transition Council in Libya—which is likely to direct the transition from Gaddafi’s regime—has tried to take a very different course, assuring all Libyans that they will be part of the new Libya. This, in contrast to the ill-conceived demobilization of Saddam’s military after Baghdad’s fall. In Benghazi, the council has retained the police force and all administrators and experts who could help keep order and maintain basic services. As Tripoli was falling, Mahmoud Jibril, a senior figure in the council, put out a statement urging the rebels not to loot, engage in reprisals or in any way “sully the final page of the revolution.” Said he: “The eyes of the world are upon us.”

Such statements might not mean much in the fires of a revolution. Gaddafi’s 42-year reign of madness and cruelty caused much pain and turmoil, and people might want a certain measure of revenge. But it is worth the effort to tame these passions. The council has also made clear that it will try to be as inclusive as possible and not excommunicate members of the old ruling order. This is perhaps inevitable, given that many of the senior figures in the Libyan opposition recently defected from the regime. This might dull the revolution’s luster but is actually a virtue. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact that members of the influential old guard felt pushed out and isolated—Sunnis and Pashtun respectively—meant that national reconciliation and thus peace became impossible. In situations like this, you can usually have justice or you can have order, but you can’t have both.

The Libyan intervention offers a new model for the West. It was a humanitarian mission with strategic interests as well—support for the Arab Spring and the new aspirations of the people of the Middle East. It was also a new model in that it involved an America that insisted on legitimacy and burden sharing, that allowed the locals to own their revolution. That means, however, that it is in the hands of the Libyans. They can avoid the mistakes of Iraq, which makes the challenge before them even more daunting. But it is a challenge they have eagerly sought and one for which they will find help from friends around the world.