Not So Fast

Before the U.S. intervenes in Libya, we must understand why the Arab world is not asking for our help.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Libya conflict.

Libyans are protesting Qaddafi, but the rest of the world is not asking for our help

I’m listening hard, but I just can’t hear the “voices around the world” who my colleague Charles Krauthammer said last week are “calling for U.S. intervention to help bring down Moammar Gaddafi.” It’s true that John Bolton, former U.N. ambassador and current Fox News contributor, has declared that“strong American words (and actions) were amply warranted” in Libya. It’s also true that a clutch of American politicians and writers have come out in favor of a similarly muscular response as well.

But outside America’s borders, all is silence. Certainly nobody in the Arab world is clamoring for American military intervention, or indeed any American intervention: Egyptian democrats are even wary of taking our development money. (“Help from America can be misunderstood,” one would-be Egyptian politician delicately explained a few days ago to the Washington Post.)

Nobody in Asia, and nobody in Europe, is calling for the Marines to be sent back to the shores of Tripoli, either. The French, feeling guilty for having failed to support (or even forsee) the revolution in Tunisia, have sent humanitarian aid to Benghazi—but have simultaneously argued against military involvement. The British have already bungled their first solo attempt to see what could be done. On Saturday, a British Special Forces team and an MI6 officer touched down near Benghazi, intending simply to make contact with the rebels. They were promptly arrested, handcuffed, interrogated, and sent out of the country. The last thing the rebels want, apparently, is the stigma of contact with foreigners.

Why the Arab anxiety about American and Western help? Why the reluctance among our allies? The answer can be summed up in a single word: Iraq. Far from setting “an example for the entire region,” as Krauthammer puts it, Iraq serves as a dire warning: Beware, for this could be the fate of your country. When the U.S. military entered Iraq, we knew nothing about the Iraqi opposition, except what we’d heard from a couple of exiles. Our soldiers didn’t speak Arabic and hadn’t been told what to do once they got to Baghdad. Incompetence led to chaos, which begat violence: Tens of thousands of people died in an eight-year civil war. Although a fragile democracy has now emerged, this isn’t an example anyone, anywhere, wants to follow.

It’s not hard to understand why Libyans and others might fear a repeat performance. In truth, the time to contact the Libyan opposition was a year ago—or five years ago—back when Tony Blair was shaking hands with Qaddafi inside desert tents and Western oil companies were going in to do business. But the British didn’t. We didn’t, either. Now we don’t even know who they are. Various colonels have emerged as “spokesman” for the rebels—but for all of the rebels? Or just some of the rebels? News reports cite “secondhand reports through rebel networks” as sources; in other words, somebody told somebody else what’s going on. As the failed British escapade shows, the spies don’t know any better.

We should enforce sanctions in Libya, offer humanitarian aid, and put in place a no-fly zone to be activated if the rebels really begin to lose. But at the moment, even if our military had unlimited funding—which it doesn’t—the Pentagon is not equipped to launch democracy in Libya. That is a job for our underfunded international radio networks, especially the ones that broadcast in Arabic; for independent institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy; for groups that train judges and journalists. It will take time before we even have the contacts to set up such programs in Libya. We should start making them right now.

It’s nice to be on the right side of history, and I’m not surprised that George W. Bush’s remaining supporters now feel good about the “freedom agenda” that he sometimes advocated and sometimes forgot while in office. But being right, even morally right, isn’t everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It’s important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It’s important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist. Let’s not repeat past mistakes: Before sending in the 101st Airborne, we should find out what people on the ground want and need. Because right now, I don’t hear them clamoring for us to come. They are afraid of what American “assistance” might do to their country.