Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Libya & Iraq: A Tale Of Two Wars

There is a compulsion among analysts to compare present day wars with the wars of yore, and more often than not they get more wrong than right. That was the case with comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq and it yet again is the case with the comparisons between Iraq and Libya.

The compulsion this time around is especially strong because the aim of both wars was to take out strongmen -- in Iraq the brutal Saddam Hussein and in Libya the somewhat less despotic Moamar el-Qaddafi, the primary export of both nations is oil, and the fall of both leaders was sudden despite their claims that the enemy would be defeated even as it had taken the capital cities.

But those comparisons are in fact coincidences and the wars could not be more different with an important qualifier: What happens after Qaddafi falls is difficult to ponder, but unlike Iraq there is no occupying force as in Iraq, led alone one who so profoundly misjudged post-victory tasks and eight years on is still a presence, albeit a diminishing one, in a land where stability remains elusive.

In fact, the differences between the two wars are profound:

* The Libyan war is homegrown in its entirety and a consequence of Arab Spring movements elsewhere, although a NATO-led coalition did join the conflict one month on when it became obvious that Qaddafi's regulars and mercenaries would make mincemeat of the ragtag rebel forces.

The U.S., backed by a coalition that was shaky from the start and a shadow of the coalition in the first Gulf War, invaded Iraq on the thoroughly discredited premise that Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Saddam was, in fact, a danger to no one except his own people and regional stability was not an issue.

The Libyan conflict was a civil war from the outset. The leaders of France, Britain and Italy, the other major NATO players besides the U.S., are adamant that they will not commit ground troops if rebel groups aren't able to make nice, form a stable government, divvy up oil revenues and the civil war has a second life.

The crowning irony of Iraq was that a protracted civil war grew out of the invasion because of the malfeasance of the Bush administration and pre-Surge commanders on the ground who played to the Shiite sympathies of what passed for an Iraq government. Sunni enclaves became hotbeds for Al Qaeda, something that Saddam would never have allowed.

* While not always adhered to, the goal of the Libyan rebels has been nation building and preservation of vital infrastructure like hospitals, communications networks and utilities.

The goal of the Iraqi insurgents was to impede nation building by destroying vital infrastructure, as well as Shiite places of worship.

* There is a discernible lack of triumphalism surrounding the Libyan rebels capture of Tripoli and no one expects President Obama or his European counterparts to slip on a flight suit and declare "Mission Accomplished."

That in large part is because of the triumphalism that characterized the early days of the Iraq war when the statue of Saddam fell, his sons were killed and later when Iraqis voted in their first post-Saddam election.

* The major beneficiary of the Libyan war, presuming that it comes to a quick end, are its North African neighbors and an element of regional stability not seen in the modern era.

The major beneficiary of the Iraq war has been Iran, which is hardwired to the Baghdad government and emerges from the American occupation in a far more powerful position.

But in the end the biggest difference between Libya and Iraq is because of the lessons of Iraq.

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