Since the dawn of civilization thousands of years ago, the broader Middle East has been a crucible of conflict. Foreign armies have waded in, often with good intentions, to bring peace and impose order. Almost without exception they have failed. Yet once again the Western world seems to believe that it is immune to the lessons of history.
And given those clear catastrophes dating back at least to Cambyses' Lost Army in 500 BC, not to mention the Roman Empire's adventures in Judea, one might think that before we launch a new war in that part of the world -- in this case Libya -- we as a nation would have a long, serious conversation about it. That didn't happen. Instead the White House announced late Friday that President Obama will deliver a speech about our involvement in Libya on Monday evening, nine days after the first bombs hit the ground.
Both sides of the aisle have done a miserable job of fostering a true national debate about the wisdom of going to war. On Capitol Hill neither party took ownership to push through a vote on a declaration of war or anything even close. Instead, on March 16th, three days before we launched our first attack, the House called an emergency session to discuss defunding NPR.
We are witnessing the same politics-as-usual sniping, skeptical media, and seeming inability to set clear goals -- the same issues that dogged us in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea.
This is not to say that we should stand by and let Moammar Gadhafi massacre his people by shelling residential apartments and shooting women and children in the head. Western interventions have been unsuccessful largely because it's difficult to impose democracy on tribal societies. Look how long it took for Iraqis to make any semblance of progress after our invasion in 2003. True momentum began only when we turned the reigns over to the locals.
We are rewriting a new chapter in the lengthy and blood-stained history of Western military intervention in the Middle East. NATO just announced it is taking control to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya and the White House says NATO is working out details on taking over the broader mission. Given the failure of the last week's airstrikes to stop Libyan government forces, the US and its allies are hatching a plan to supply weapons to the Libyan opposition -- suggesting a long-term involvement that could burden us for some time to come.
The hasty policies cobbled together to preserve Western interests in the region -- even if taken in the name of preventing a massacre -- were decided behind closed doors. When U.S.-led forces, after a quick U.N. vote, began launching missile strikes last Saturday to prevent Gadhafi from attacking his own people, it took most of us by surprise.
If history teaches us anything, it's extraordinarily dangerous to interfere in the Middle East. We are risking repeating the same failures powerful nations have encountered centuries before us. The thousands of American soldiers who have been killed or suffer permanent disabilities as a result of combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade are a testament to why it makes sense to debate, and then act deliberately with a clearly-defined national consensus to support the troops.
The major events that have shaped the region -- ranging from the French in Algeria and the British in Egypt to the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are clear indications that meddling in Middle Eastern affairs in the name of bringing civilization, democracy, and freedom can be a recipe for disaster. And to do it without an honest dialogue is downright foolish.