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The Libyan War Was a Success. But It Won’t Be a Model For Other Wars.

When the Spanish-American War of 1898 ended with a victory for the United States, John Hay, U.S. ambassador in London, felt moved to celebrate. In a letter to Teddy Roosevelt, he described it as a war “begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by the fortune which loves the brave.” It was, in short, “a splendid little war.”

The fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya has inclined many contemporary commentators to similarly effusive bursts of cheer. But does the war in Libya deserve all the praise being bestowed upon it? Will this be the dawn of a new era of low-cost, humanitarian intervention? Was this our own era’s “splendid little war,” a model for future wars to come?

Not quite. There is little evident splendor in a war which took the richest bunch of nations on earth five months to decide, just in time before the bombs ran out. In Serbia, against a much more potent foe than Qaddafi’s army, NATO did it in half the time. But in judging just how exemplary this war was, let’s consider Hay’s descriptors in order.

Was the war “begun with the highest motives”? No war ever is. (Not even the assault on Cuba that Ambassador Hay was cheering: Republican President William McKinley entered the war in part because Democrats and the “Yellow Press” of Hearst and Pulitzer berated him into it.) Benevolent altruism explains only so much about NATO-in-Libya. Yes, Qaddafi seemed poised to lay low Benghazi, the wellspring of the revolt, and the “responsibility to protect” is now a part of international law. But the coalition-of-the-willing was pushed into action by its own parochial interests.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France had domestic fish to fry: He saw the war as a way to fend off the challenge posed to him in next year’s presidential election by Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the nationalist right, who polls suggest may force him into a run-off. The nations on the northern littoral of the Mediterranean, most notably Italy, were motivated by other practical concerns. These countries wanted to stem the arrival on their shores of unwanted refugee from North Africa, unwanted intruders of dark color and Muslim faith. (In this, their feelings resembled those of Germans and Austrians in the 1990s: Those countries were glad when the Bosnians who had escaped from the Serbs in the Balkan wars finally went home again.)

Was the war in Libya “carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit”? It would be more accurate to make that: With less-than-magnificent resolve and even less ordnance. Two of NATO-Europe’s biggest—Germany and Poland—did not fly along, and the United States did so only half-heartedly, dropping command authority into French and British laps. The Germans couldn’t even bring themselves to vote for the no-fly zone in the U.N. Security Council.

At the time, Berlin’s Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, thought the intervention was too fraught with “risks and dangers.” True enough, but the risks he was referring to were the electoral kind. Germans, whose Afrika Korps went to the gates of Cairo in Word War II, don’t do war any more; the two big ones lost between 1914 and 1945 were one too many. The government could read the opinion polls, and so Westerwelle gave the people what they wanted to hear, declaring at the time, “We don’t want to become party to a civil war in North Africa and step onto a slippery slope that, in the end, will make German soldiers participants in a Libyan war.” Naturally, he now claims credit for an “apparent success,” hawking the mighty contribution Germany has made to sanctions and civilian aid.

So Britain and France shouldered the main burden, cheered along by Obama’s America, which, for the first time since NATO’s birth in 1949, refused to move to the head of the class. Luckily, the U.S. provided the bulk of the sophisticated hardware: Space-based surveillance, battlefield intelligence, drones, precision munitions, tank and bunker busters. Judging how the top brass in Britain and France were moaning about running out of bombs in early summer, the U.S. also must have eventually ponied up the standard stuff.

How about the war being “favored by the fortune which loves the brave“? Good fortune played a role, no doubt, but the bravest were the Libyans who transformed themselves from a bunch of disheveled, underequipped civilians into a force capable of capturing Tripoli. This is not to knock NATO; if the allies hadn’t taken out Qaddafi’s planes, tanks and artillery, the rebels might still be in Benghazi fighting for their meager gains, and their lives. But it does take more guts and stamina to fight in the open desert and in urban warrens than to unleash a Hellfire missile from far above.

Another piece of good fortune is that the rebels seem to have considerable political savvy. They must have read the postmortems from the war in Iraq, which detail the disastrous consequences of dismantling the army, disbanding the police, and decapitating the administration. They are currently doing the opposite, keeping the police and security apparatus intact while welcoming defectors with open arms. If Tripoli 2011 doesn’t turn into Baghdad 2003, the rebels will be able to add half a political victory to almost-total military triumph.

Why only half? Because lots of bad stuff can still happen. One is the falling-out of a squabbling leadership; the threesome currently leading the rebels is endemically unstable. Moreover, Libya’s Western tribes, who managed the breakthrough into Tripoli, may demand a larger chunk of the power than the Benghazi crowd is willing to cede; after all, the Easterners started the uprising and suffered most of the casualties in the first four months. Finally, Qaddafi loyalists may still be up to follow the Iraqi Sunni route, into an endless terror campaign. So all’s not well that hasn’t ended well.

As for the claim that the Libyan war will usher in a new era of humanitarian wars, events already seem to be undermining that case. As the West watches Libya in a fit of self-congratulation, we seem to be forgetting that Syria’s Assad Jr., who is as ruthless as Qaddafi, but far more capable of mayhem, is continuing his bloody campaign. His people may be even braver than the Libyans. Assad has killed 1900 of them since March, and yet they keep facing down his gunmen throughout the country. So don’t they deserve Western help even more than the Libyans?

Yes, but they won’t get it. Humanitarian fervor stops at Syria’s border. Because Syria’s terrain is much more treacherous than Libyan desert. Because Assad’s army is vastly better trained and equipped than Qaddafi’s. Because his neighbors near and far—Russia, Turkey, China, Iran, even Israel—have made clear they wouldn’t like it. (Moscow and Beijing won’t abstain in the Security Council this time around.) Because bombing alone won’t do. Because Europe need not fear refugee waves from Syria—too far away for a quick boat trip. Nor would the U.S. engage in another war in another Muslim land—not with an economy in a coma, and not when a real threat is rising in the Far East. And finally because NATO-Europe, like Pogo, has “seen the enemy, and them is us.”

“Us” is an alliance where defense outlays had begun to melt away long before the current economic catastrophe. If you’re busy with saving the euro, like France, or stopping urban revolts, as is Britain, you don’t go off regularly to help insurgents in the Middle East. You can hardly even afford the ammunition. NATO was pushed to its limit over Libya, and just barely avoided a public break-up. In the business of global order, the West is still the best, but it will take a rest for now.

By all means, let us savor this “splendid little war.” But let’s also keep in mind that it was a piece of good luck, not a model for humanitarianism next time. 

Josef Joffe is editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg, as well as Senior Fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies and Abramowitz Fellow at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford.