To look at US policy toward those two countries over the past five years, the general view seems to be that things couldn’t get worse, so Washington has pushed for change. In both countries, change has come, and things have gotten worse. And while it’s solipsistic to suggest that those countries’ politics turned on what the American president said about them, the Obama administration’s rhetorical and material support for the revolutions may have made things worse, on net, for citizens in those countries by prolonging the wars.
This is not something that is easy to suggest in the policy/pundit world in DC. “X would put Qaddafi back in power” or “X sides with Bashar Assad in Syria” is a demagogic debate-stopper. This sort of argument was the last refuge of a neocon when it came to Iraq. Nobody wants to be accused of supporting or even minimizing the crimes of dictators. But the fact remains, life under dictatorship is one thing, life under an extended, stalemated civil war is another.
Consider Syria: A report from Freedom House in 2010, the year before the civil war started, detailed the state of affairs in the country. Ranking it Not Free, Freedom House went on to detail the usual catalog of Arab authoritarianism. The Assad regime banned a wide array of political parties and publications; persecuted opposition leaders; used graft widely; ran a brutal secret police; and did an array of other nasty things.
But juxtapose that against what has ensued since: the regime has fought a ruinous war against the revolutionaries, but failed to defeat it. Similarly, the opposition appears nowhere close to victory. Assad has gratuitously pummeled civilian populations, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have grown from nothing into regional insurgencies. Somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 people have been killed, at least 100,000 of them civilians, and more than 7 million have been driven from their homes, with more than 4 million fleeing the country entirely. This in a country that started out the war with just 22 million people.
In Libya, the before part of the before-and-after is similar, but instead of a brutal and inconclusive civil war, Qaddafi was deposed and replaced by…well, it’s hard to say. Just last December, the UN brokered a deal between Libya’s two governments to form one government so that it could effectively fight ISIS, which had seized control over some of the more valuable parts of the country. Despite this deal, however,
Continuing armed clashes have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and interrupted access to basic services, including fuel and electrical power. Forces engaged in the conflict are guilty of arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, disappearances, and the forceful displacement of people. In addition, armed groups that pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) are also summarily killing people in areas under their control.
A revolution is always a gamble. Win and get a hand in forming a new political structure. Lose and die. Drag on inconclusively, and lots of people die. So it’s not for me, sitting in Washington, DC, to tell Syrians or Libyans whether they should or shouldn’t have supported revolutions against their terrible governments. But it does look like a plausible case can be made that reverting to the pre-war status quo would be better than any likely outcome in either country, other than a miracle.
And in rhetorically supporting the revolutionaries (“Assad must go”) and in fighting on their side (bombing Libyan government forces in Libya) it seems likely that the Obama administration prolonged wars that might otherwise have been won more quickly by the incumbent governments. Time will only tell what emerges in the wake of Qaddafi and Assad, but one has to wonder just how much worse the status quo ante will look once the costs of the wars to change them have been factored in. In both places, the butcher’s bill is appallingly high, and what it’s purchased is still unclear.