The Mythology of Intervention

Debating the Lessons of History in Libya

When considering how the United States should deal with persistent foreign policy problems, history can be instructive. Distorted or misremembered history, however, is dangerous. Unfortunately, in the recent debate over U.S. intervention in Libya, journalists and analysts have propagated an array of falsehoods and mischaracterizations about the United States' uses of military force since the end of the Cold War. Believing in these myths -- particularly in their supposedly successful outcomes -- leads to a misunderstanding of contemporary problems and to a more interventionist U.S. foreign policy.

The first myth is that the combination of NATO airpower and a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) ground offensive drove Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo in 1999. Today, proponents of intervention in Libya, such as Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations and Peter Juul at the Center for American Progress, have advocated replicating this supposed success. They argue that Libyan rebel forces, fighting with close air support from Western fighter planes, could wage an effective ground offensive all the way to Tripoli and force Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi from power.

But a U.S. Air Force review of its precision airpower campaign in Kosovo revealed a much darker picture than NATO's glowing initial assessment: 14 tanks were destroyed, not 120, as previously reported; similarly, 18 armored personnel carriers, not 220, and 20 mobile artillery pieces, not 450, were eliminated. During the campaign, the Serbian military quickly adapted to NATO's operations by constructing fake "artillery" from logs and old truck axles, and "surface-to-air missiles" made of paper.

Furthermore, the KLA failed to mount a credible and sustained opposition to the disciplined, ruthless, and better-armed Serbian ground forces. Ultimately, it was NATO's escalation of air strikes against the Serbian military and the civilian infrastructure in Serbia proper -- combined with Russia's withdrawal of its support for Serbia -- that caused Milosevic to capitulate.

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