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.

Second, many in and outside of government, including Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the diplomat and academic Philip Zelikow, have called for a so-called no-drive zone, in which Libyan armored divisions would be prohibited from any movement around the country, or at least from movement against civilian populations. They cite the successful use of such a policy by U.S. forces in Iraq after the first Gulf War. In Libya, this thinking goes, a no-drive zone could be relatively easy to set up and would neutralize Qadaffi's conventional ground capabilities and alter the military balance between the regime and rebels.

Yet there never was a no-drive zone in Iraq. In fact, in October 1994, Saddam Hussein dispatched 70,000 troops, led by two Republican Guard divisions, toward the Kuwaiti border. There, they joined six Iraqi army divisions already stationed below the 32nd parallel, the geographic marker that cordoned off the southern no-fly zone. To safeguard Kuwaiti and Saudi oil, the Clinton administration responded with Operation Vigilant Warrior, which rapidly deployed U.S. ground forces and armored equipment to the Persian Gulf. Deterred, Hussein quickly pulled his Republican Guard divisions back to central Iraq, where they stayed. In addition, UN Security Council Resolution 949 demanded the "withdrawal of all military units recently deployed to southern Iraq." Washington and London used that resolution as justification for formal diplomatic warnings to Baghdad that it could not augment its ground forces beneath the 32nd parallel. But this policy applied only to military units that arrived in the region after October 1994: in other words, although Hussein may have withdrawn his two Republican Guard divisions, six Iraqi Army divisions remained and freely attacked foes of the Baghdad regime.

Third, many military analysts, along with U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), seem to believe that no-fly zones protect civilians on the ground. But this is often not the case. Despite the rosy memories of some interventionists, the no-fly zones over Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-95) and northern and southern Iraq (1991-2003) failed to protect civilian populations.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina the no-fly zone went largely unenforced (with one notable exception, when NATO shot down four Serbian planes in February 1994). As Madeline Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in her memoir: "We voted to enforce no-fly zones, but the Serbs violated them hundreds of times without paying a significant price." To a lesser degree, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim airplanes and helicopters also violated the no-fly zone. Even if it had been enforced, the no-fly zone would have been impotent against the brutal counterinsurgency attacks conducted by Serbian ground forces, which massacred 9,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica.

Within both the northern and southern no-fly zones in Iraq, Saddam's ground forces attacked any group that opposed the regime. In the south, in the years after the failed Shia uprising in 1991, Hussein initiated a brutal counterinsurgency campaign. His troops destroyed the marshlands that were part of the historical ecosystem of southern Iraq, building roadways through some so they could bring artillery within range of Shia insurgents and draining others so as to eliminate rebel hiding places. At the same time, Iraqi security forces cordoned off suspected rebel areas and controlled the movement of people. In the north, in August 1996 -- with the no-fly zone in full operational force -- Hussein viciously put down a short-lived Kurdish uprising with 40,000 troops, 300 tanks, and 300 pieces of artillery.

Outside powers, meanwhile, routinely violated the Iraqi no-fly zones. In southern Iraq, Iranian jets penetrated Iraqi airspace to bomb camps run by Mujahideen-e Khalq (an armed, Shia, anti-Tehran opposition group), which housed both civilians and fighters. In northern Iraq, Turkish fighter planes repeatedly bombed villages suspected of harboring Kurdistan Workers' Party terrorists. According to the U.S. State Department's 2000 report on human rights, in one of these attacks, Turkish planes accidentally killed 38 civilians. As one U.S. commander of the northern no-fly zone told me: "We would fly over the Kurds in F-16s to protect the population and assure humanitarian supplies. Then the Turks would bomb the Kurds with F-16s."

The fourth myth of U.S. intervention is that NATO established a no-fly zone over Kosovo in the 1990s -- which then did not stop Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries from forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians and killing 10,000 others. In debating a no-fly zone in Libya, commentators in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others, invoked this supposed fact, which suggested that no-fly zones were impotent, as a reason why they would fail in Libya.

In reality, after small skirmishes between Serbian forces and the KLA in early 1998, in July and August of that year, NATO debated a number of preventive deployments -- such as placing military observers in Albania and Macedonia -- and more intrusive measures, including a phased air campaign and the incursion of up to 200,000 NATO troops into Kosovo. Before Operation Allied Force began on March 24, 1999, however, NATO neither debated implementing a no-fly zone over Kosovo nor did it impose one.

Lastly, many believe the myth that killing political leaders neutralizes the threat their regimes pose. Citing the recent success of unmanned drone strikes in killing suspected al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan, many, including British Foreign Secretary William Hague, have asked, "Why don't we just assassinate Qadaffi?" Although this may appear to be an easy solution, the targeted killing of political leaders does not work.

Recent, comparable efforts to use cruise missiles or bombs to eliminate U.S. adversaries -- including Qadaffi himself in 1986 and again by the British last Monday, Osama Bin Laden in 1998, Milosevic in 1999, and Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003 -- all failed. Despite the United States' intelligence capabilities, political leaders who believe they are targeted are adaptive, resilient, and hard to kill from a distance. The U.S. record of failure in this regard is even worse than the historical average. Of the 298 publicly reported assassination attempts on national leaders between 1875 and 2004, less than 20 percent were successful. Furthermore, while decapitating the leadership certainly generates confusion, the aftermath is rarely positive -- as with the killing of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, when the United States plunged deeper into a civil war on behalf of incompetent generals in Saigon. However unpleasant a truth it may be, nothing short of a full-scale invasion can assure regime change, as shown everywhere from Grenada to Panama and Iraq to Afghanistan.

Even when accurate, historical analogies can be a double-edged sword. As Ernest May and Richard Neustadt argued in their book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, well-deployed and critically examined historical references can enhance decision-making (the Kennedy administration relied on the lessons of World War II to avoid a nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis), or degrade it (the Truman administration misunderstood Nazi and fascist expansionism, which led it to miscalculate in Korea).

In the debate over whether, and how, to intervene in Libya, opponents and proponents called on historical examples to bolster their case. Too often, these examples were historically inaccurate and were misapplied to Libya's unfolding civil war. If the legacy of recent uses of U.S. military force demonstrate anything, it is that regardless of whether the objective is to protect civilians on the ground, precipitate Qaddafi's removal from power, or stabilize a postconflict Libya, more force, time, attention, and resources will be needed than the international community has thus far proven willing to commit.

For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

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  • MICAH ZENKO is a Fellow at the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World.
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