It has become virtually an article of faith among America’s chattering class that the Western intervention in Libya cannot be considered a success unless Muammar Gaddafi is removed from power. Reacting to President Obama’s speech on Libya last week, CNN’s Eliot Spitzer said, “If … we begin to pull back militarily, that is a very dicey political proposition for the President, to withdraw until we have gotten that moment of clear success, the elimination of Gaddafi.” On PBS NewsHour last Friday, the liberal columnist Mark Shields declared, “Any mission that ends or is completed with Gaddafi still in effective control of Libya is a failure.” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona says of Gaddafi that “the longer he stays in power, the more dangerous he becomes.” Another Republican Senator, Florida’s Marco Rubio, wants any Senate resolution backing the use of force in Libya to stipulate that “removing Muammar Gaddafi from power is in our national interest and … authorize the President to accomplish that goal.”
From the start of the Libyan crisis, Obama has expressed his preference for Gaddafi to relinquish power. But he also insists that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” This perceived contradiction has provided fodder for critics of the President’s policy, such as the former Bush Administration officials John Yoo and Robert Delahunty, who labeled it “erratic, improvisational and amateurish” and accused Obama of strengthening “Gaddafi’s resolve to hang on” by ruling out the possibility of an American invasion.
But such arguments are ridiculous. As Obama pointed out in his speech, deposing Gaddafi by force would involve a military commitment that Americans neither want nor can afford. And even if the U.S. were not already struggling to extricate itself from two land wars, a concerted military campaign to remove Gaddafi from power would be shortsighted and strategically foolish. Despite the claims of armchair generals in Washington, there’s no evidence that stopping the large-scale slaughter of civilians the stated reason for international intervention in Libya requires Western-sponsored regime change. Nor is it obvious that the Libyan people would be better off in the long run. In fact, history suggests that employing U.S. military power to overthrow Gaddafi would do Libya more harm than good.
The idea of bringing down a terror-sponsoring tyrant may be appealing, but the success rate of regime changes imposed by foreign armies is dismal. According to Alexander B. Downes, a political scientist at Duke University, there have been 95 instances of “foreign-imposed regime change” worldwide since 1816. Downes has found that in countries where an external force replaced the existing regime with a new one, the chances of a civil war erupting within five years tripled. Rulers who are seen to be installed by outsiders are less able to command loyalty and more likely to encounter opposition, rebellion and armed insurgency. State institutions have a greater tendency to collapse, especially if FIRC happens as a result of war. And poor, ethnically heterogeneous nations the kinds of places “where the United States and most other advanced democracies are most likely to undertake such [interventions]” are the most susceptible to post-regime-change instability.