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Libya and Lexington: A Misleading Analogy

April 21, 2011

The disorganization, lack of discipline, and incoherent command structure of the Libyan rebels’ armed forces has been a prime subject of pessimism surrounding the revolt. As French, British, and Italian troops prepare to assist training of and coordination with rebel forces, and the US promises non-lethal aid, NATO governments are trying to take the issue seriously.

Max Boot, in a post at Commentary, argues that since disorganization did not doom the American rebels, we should not be pessimistic about similar problems afflicting their supposed Libyan equivalents.

As the rebels struggled to organize themselves there was no end of discord among their political and military leaders. Just as in Libya today, there was a constant power struggle going within the ranks of the rebel leadership. Although George Washington was appointed commander-in-chief, there were many who doubted his leadership and openly supported other contenders, such as Horatio Gates and Charles Lee, who had prior British army experience which Washington lacked.

This is one of those analogies which obscures far more than it reveals. The American rebels were indeed disorganized and politically divided. The American revolution, however, is in virtually every other way, a bad analogy for what is happening in Libya today. Firstly, it was a war by colonies against the mother country. This has a lot of important implications. It meant that Britain was coordinating its war across the entire Atlantic Ocean, and had its own serious problems in managing the chain of command without compromising local knowledge and unity of effort. It meant British troops were fighting far from home, on thinner supply lines than usual, and in terrain they had little knowledge of in a kind of war they had little experience with. Compared to the usual battlefields of Europe, the difference in sparsely populated, enormous America is stark.

Differences in geography also contributed to the strength of irregular tactics. Fighting a Fabian war in the open country and varied terrains and choke points of America makes a lot more sense than doing so in Libya, where most of the fighting appears to be concentrated along the coast and its highways. The rebels are not seeking to implement a Fabian strategy, they are trying to take cities. Nor is it clear that they could resort to the kind of Fabian strategy which let Washington outlast the British and attain victory.

Libya is not, after all, a colonial war. It is a civil war, and while America had elements of a civil war too, it was not an existential civil war as far as London and most of the British empire was concerned. As Adam Smith said about British reverses in America, “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation” – America was just one of many British territories, and its loss hardly foretold the doom of the empire, let alone Britain itself. We cannot say the same for Libya, which is in the midst of a civil war of existential magnitude for the regime. Unless the improbable division of the country occurs, Gaddafi’s regime cannot afford a loss to the rebels. Fabian strategies are far more effective for those defending their home and its surroundings from a foreign invader than as an offensive tactic to overthrow their own regime.

Then Boot goes on to note the role of the French in attaining American independence:

It took years to forge an effective and cohesive fighting force out of the raw materials provided by the states. And even then it is doubtful that the Revolution would have prevailed were it not for the support of the French who provided not only ships and supplies but regular soldiers to stiffen resistance against the British.

The implication here is that we cannot expect the Libyan rebels to win on their own unless a powerful third-party can tip the scales in their favor. The analogy continues to mislead. French supplies, including ammunition, began entering unofficially as early as 1776. But it was not until late 1777 that the Saratoga campaign gave France the impetus to formally go to war (in 1778) on the rebels’ side by sending ships. The ground forces Boot mentions, under Rochambeau, did not arrive until 1780. So it is not exactly as if France jumped in to the war without being assured of the rebels’ military viability first.

While we are at it, we should remind ourselves that France’s incentives to go to war in America were far stronger than America’s in the same region. By intervening against Britain in America, France could weaken its strongest enemy and create an opportunity to seize lucrative territories in the Caribbean, and shore up its own ally, Spain’s, holdings in the Americas. Although it may have supported the Soviet Fifth eskadra during the Cold War, and Gaddafi mulled Benghazi as a new Russian naval base, Libya plays no comparable role in a peer competitor’s dominion. Nor could one, or Gaddafi’s own government, use it as a platform to seriously challenge the areas of the Middle East the US is more interested in. France was not conducting a humanitarian action, it was a reactionary, absolutist pre-revolutionary state which actually feared the implications of the government the rebels might create.

One could also discuss the crippling aspect of the pattern of profligate spending the French intervention in the American war continued, the ideological consequences France helped unleash, and the quasi-War which followed after that. We could explore how the French remained skeptical and limit escalation of the war until the rebels proved themselves, which was prudent on non-humanitarian grounds, because dragging out the civil war was not a serious problem for France. We could also note that France did particularly care if the American experiment in republicanism succeeded, so long as the British suffered. This misses the point, though.

The point is that Libya is not America in 1775, and the Libyan Civil War is not the American War of Independence. The experience of the American rebels is a dangerous and misleading analogy that creates a falsely reassuring narrative of intervention in Libya, when the historical situations and interests at play are extremely different. We are not somehow betraying our predecessors by remaining skeptical of the Libyan rebels, nor does invoking them give us any insight into how to handle a largely humanitarian intervention in another country’s civil war.

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