Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Iraq War and the Libya War

Mary Dejevsky writes in The West still labours under the shadow of Iraq The Independent 03/18/2011:

It is a bitter irony that the anniversary of the start of the Iraq war should fall precisely this weekend. Eight years after the battles for Baghdad and Basra, the UN Security Council has given approval for an exclusion zone over another Arab land. The legacy of Iraq haunts every move.

This much Barack Obama at least has recognised. As momentous events sweep the Arab world, his administration has consistently chosen to follow rather than lead. Pressed by allies to offer early support for the protesters in Egypt, or take sides over the fighting in Libya, the White House offered nothing. The one member of his administration whom Mr Obama retained from the Bush years has been the most publicly cautious. Donald Rumsfeld's successor at the Pentagon, Robert Gates, said that enforcing even a no-fly zone would be tantamount to a declaration of war, concerned about becoming embroiled in another country's civil war.

The post-invasion anarchy in Iraq left its mark. But it is not only this memory that prescribed caution in the US and wariness on the part of Arab opposition groups that might, under other circumstances, have sought American support. At the most basic level, the Iraq war has sapped military capability and money. The US still has almost 50,000 troops deployed there. Nato forces, with the US and Britain supplying by far the largest contingents, are still fighting in Afghanistan. Arguably, Iraq is a reason they are still there a decade on – because operations in Afghanistan took second place, at a key juncture, to Iraq. Whatever the reason, the consequence is that, in combat on two fronts, even the United States cannot spare much more manpower or hardware for use beyond its own borders. [my emphasis]
I'm a little dubious on the last part.

I don't doubt that in some real sense, US military capabilities are being stretched. As Stephen Walt puts it in What does the U.N.'s decision mean for Libya? For the rest of the world? Foreign Policy 03/18/2011, "this whole debate on Libya underscores the importance of something that enthusiastic war hawks always forget: opportunity costs."

But I'll be greatly surprised if the United States isn't very soon carrying the main military burden in the Libya War.

Dejevsky also writes, "At a psychological level, Iraq undermined US national confidence, and faith everywhere in US power." "US national confidence" is a fuzzy concept. The public is definitely weary of wars, even though most citizens are relatively untouched in a direct sense, i.e., have no family members or good friends fighting in them. But the Obama Administration still has enormous confidence in the United States' ability to intervene in civil wars in the Arab world.

She concludes:

Supporters of intervention will breathe a sigh of relief and hail this as the anti-Iraq model. And it is easy to conclude that eight years ago George Bush picked the wrong fight. If you want to foster democracy, why not invest in a country where opposition forces are already championing it on their own? But it is a bit late for such regrets now.

Mr Cameron may also fancy that, as one of the first to call for action on Libya, he was exorcising the ghost of Iraq from UK foreign policy. In so doing, though, he risks underestimating the suspicion that Iraq has left in its wake. Mr Obama understands the real cost of the Iraq war all too well – and whatever comes next in Libya, the latest addition to the bill may be years of civil strife in North Africa.
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