The Skeptics

Libya and the 5 Stages of U.S. Intervention

The United States and its European allies are ramping up plans to intervene in Libya again, this time to confront the growing Islamic State presence in the country. The eagerness to jump back into Libya follows a five-stage pattern that has become all too familiar since the end of the Cold War. This pattern reflects the fundamental inability of the American political system to accept the world as it actually is, rather than how policymakers prefer it to be. Without addressing this dysfunction, the United States will find itself unable to break its cycle of failure in the Middle East.


Stage 1: Outrage and Denial

Since the end of the Cold War, every U.S. military intervention has been one of choice rather than necessity. Even the terrorist attacks of 9/11 did not require the United States to launch a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. Instead, it is outrage that has driven American intervention. After 9/11, the outrage was visceral, stemming from the intense pain caused by the terrorist attacks. In most other cases, the outrage has been philosophical, erupting when events abroad violated the moral sensibilities of American foreign-policy elites and the public.

Even on the eve of Desert Storm in January 1991, a war approved of by many realists, outrage was evident in President Bush’s explanation of the decision to go to war. Citing the need for a “new world order” in which the rule of law triumphed over the “law of the jungle,” Bush quoted Marine Lieutenant General Walter Boomer, saying: "There are things worth fighting for. A world in which brutality and lawlessness are allowed to go unchecked isn't the kind of world we're going to want to live in.''

Obama’s speech to the nation about the first Libyan intervention revealed similar motivations. In his speech to the nation announcing the operation Obama told the public that, “We knew that. . . if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”


Stage 2: Stunted Debate and the Precipitous Use of Force

Once outraged, the United States typically mobilizes for intervention by conducting a stunted debate on the question of whether or not to use military force. The White House dominates the debate thanks to the president’s institutional advantage in courting the news media, and because opponents of intervention are afraid of getting on the wrong side of public opinion.

In many cases, proponents of intervention actively attempt to stifle rational debate by feeding the media hyped-up stories about the threat and telling stories aimed at generating more outrage. Many Americans will still remember the tearful Kuwaiti girl telling Congress about how the Iraqi army had thrown babies from their hospital incubators during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The story would later turn out to be a lie, but was repeated endlessly at the time, making rational debate and opposition to the intervention much more difficult.

In turn, thanks to the reliance on emotion and the lopsided debate, there is little patience in the American political system for the steady exploration of alternative approaches. The American refusal to accept that thugs and evil regimes populate the world makes diplomacy difficult. Sanctions, meanwhile, are decried as too slow or ineffective to provide satisfactory progress for a political system hopped up on outrage.

The 2003 war in Iraq rightly receives a great deal of attention for the failure of rational debate. Despite the gravely suspect WMD intelligence and the improbable connections suggested between Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda and 9/11, there was very little in the way of a sustained debate about the pros and cons of the invasion of Iraq. Even the New York Times editorial board would later apologize for how little coverage it gave countervailing evidence and the war’s skeptics.

But the better example of how outrage cuts off debate is surely Afghanistan. The Bush administration launched Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001, less than one month after 9/11. In the rush to send tens of thousands of troops to topple a government, there was hardly a dissenting voice to be found in the United States. The haste to retaliate and to destroy Al Qaeda was certainly understandable from an emotional perspective, but time revealed that it was an incredibly costly and counterproductive policy in the long run.