Richard Haass: Bleak history lessons for Libya's future

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[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 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?”..

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