Democracy Arsenal

« So How's That Strategic Partnership With Pakistan Going? | Main | Welfare: Bad For America, Good For Europe? »

April 14, 2011

Start Another Fire and Watch It Slowly Die: The Aftermath of Regime Change
Posted by Eric Martin

Adam Curtis, a documentary filmmaker, traces a loose history of the modern concept of humanitarian intervention in the West and its philosophical underpinnings - punctuated, unsurprisingly, with several compelling documentary film clips.

While historians may quibble with certain aspects of his rendition, there was one passage that stood out: 

The movement had begun back in Biafra because a group of young idealists wanted to escape from the old corrupt power politics. To do this they had simplified the world into a moral struggle between good and evil.

They believed that if they could destroy the evil - by liberating victims from oppression by despots - then what would result would be, automatically, good.

But the problem with this simple view was that it meant they had no critical framework by which to judge the "victims" they were helping. And the Baghdad bombing made it clear that some of the victims were very bad indeed - and that the humanitarians' actions might actually have helped unleash another kind of evil. [emphasis added]

These concerns speak directly to my apprehensions about US military involvement in Libya.  Even a muscular No-Fly-Zone was not likely going to prove sufficient to enable an out-trained and out-gunned rebel force to topple Qaddafi, yet escalating after that fact was made clear by sending in ground forces would be ill-advised to say the least (two wars is likely enough for the moment).  Even arming the rebels (like a No-Fly-Zone, this option has a certain arms-length, antiseptic appeal on the surface) is an extremely risky endeavor, with the potential to destabilize the nation and its environs for decades to come.

More importantly, as I tried to emphasize in my prior piece, we should be careful what we wish for: if the rebels do manage to usurp Qaddafi, what comes next could prove worse in many respects.  It is not fanciful to imagine that a country with no history of democratic rule and weak civil institutions would be fertile ground for violent purges, power struggles, protracted civil wars and/or insurgencies (with forces loyal to Qaddafi attempting to re-claim the power and privilege recently lost - see, ie, the Baathists in Iraq - and rebel forces keen to settle scores - see, ie, the Mahdi Army purges in and around Baghdad).  These armed conflicts would be exacerbated if the rebels receive large amounts of weapons, and the country is awash in arms.

Would the US feel compelled to intervene if such situations were to evolve as a direct result of our armed intervention? Would we commit to policing the population and nation building lest such conflicts run rampant?  Either scenario would be enormously costly and time consuming, both of which are understatements in the extreme. 

But as the Curtis quote illustrates, we can not and should not assume that merely removing an odious regime will inevitably lead to a positive outcome, or that the forces that oppose a given despot must be, ipso facto, righteous.

The essential lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan should not be limited to the notions that wars are almost always far more costly than advertised (in monetary terms), that they unleash myriad unforeseen destructive forces that can have regional implications and that disengaging from them is exceedingly difficult (already, we have been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets, and our impending deadline to withdraw from Iraq is causing much consternation for US military leaders). 

That list must include the proposition that unseating even a noxious regime is no guarantee that the aftermath will be easily manageable, conflict free or anything short of tragic for the populations that we are ostensibly attempting to help - or that there are not also noxious elements amongst our putative allies in the underlying population.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Start Another Fire and Watch It Slowly Die: The Aftermath of Regime Change:


No one said that Libya needs a defined conclusion. A massive genocide was avoided, and even if the result is an awkward standoff for the next however many years, that's still better than whatever the alternative would have been. After all, state boundaries are malleable and the inception of new states (i.e. the rebel state's new border) happens all the time. In short, Libya may end poorly, but at least it won't end horribly.

Frankly, it appears this blog post may have been fully digested by the administration. We're not using ground forces, and Congress won't be talking about the situation any time soon. We've thrown our hands up and are walking away, a very smart decision.


The American policy as explained by the President tries to address the balance between humanitarian aid and regime change, attempting to avoid the problems of interventions past. Success depends on Libyans, America's allies and people of the region.

A massive genocide was avoided

Genocide? I don't think you're using that term correctly, and the error is only compounded by your use of "massive" to further embellish.

Looking really nice post.

Thank you for this article. That's all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something special. You clearly know what you are doing, you've covered so many bases.Thanks!

I like your article very much, support you.

Thank you. I learned a lot from your article.

The official UN policy is to protect civilians, but not intervene for the purposes of Regime change. Given that, if the rebels cannot obtain arms (which is what the piece is obviously hoping for) it would seem that Kadhafi would win by default. Their are three choices: Kadhafi wins, outside forces depose him and install a new government, or armed Libyan rebels defeat Kadhafi. Which one do you support?

Thank you for this article. That's all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something special. You clearly know what you are doing

All the information about the Pakistani Conundrum which you have shared all the important information. I read all fantastic things and getting more knowledge. Wonderful information.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use