What happens after a bad regime falls? In the American mindset, which tends toward mindless optimism, bad is logically replaced by good. Reality is different. Deposing oppressive regimes sometimes leads to greater oppression.
This is an especially painful lesson for well-meaning Americans who believe they can liberate populations by crashing into or tearing apart foreign countries. President Obama has been one of them. On his recent trip to Africa, he confronted the failure of his two most ill-conceived “humanitarian” interventions, those in Libya and Sudan.
Obama’s trip came soon after he moved to normalize relations with Cuba and Iran, countries against which the United States has launched repeated interventions. He understands that dealing with unpleasant regimes, rather than fighting them, can have long-term benefits. We may not like the Castro government in Cuba or the mullahs in Iran, but it is wiser to accept them than to seek their overthrow without knowing what comes next.
In Libya and Sudan, Obama acted against this principle. He ripped apart repressive political orders with the hope that new ones would be better. Both cases have ended in disaster. In Cuba and Iran, Obama is trying to repair damage done by past American interventions. In Libya and Sudan, he has inflicted damage that torments him and will torment his successors.
Bombing Libya and promoting the overthrow of Moammar Khadafy seemed like a fine idea in 2011. Khadafy had a long record of brutality and was threatening to attack protesters in one of his own cities. No one in Washington, though, seems to have asked the obvious question of what would follow his collapse. Libya had little civil society and no democratic tradition. It should have been obvious that terror and civil war would break out if Khadafy were suddenly removed. Not only has that happened, but weapons looted from Khadafy’s arsenals have found their way to terrorists across Africa. We intervened in Libya to save lives, but because we had no substitute for the regime we deposed, in the end our intervention killed more than it saved.
Something similar has happened in South Sudan. Well-meaning humanitarians in the United States, including a handful of movie stars, were moved by stories about the brutality of Sudan’s leader, Omar al-Bashir. They promoted a process to cut the country into two. In their utopian fantasy, the new country of South Sudan would be a refuge for peace and democracy. Instead it has become a killing field. Tens of thousands have died since independence in 2011. Two million people have lost their homes and are adrift among warring armies.
In Libya the Americans had no plan for post-Khadafy government, and simply hoped for the best. In South Sudan we at least had the outline of a plan for democracy, but it failed miserably. We deluded ourselves into believing that factions in South Sudan would behave as we advised. This disaster was preordained. South Sudan was not ready for nationhood, but in our eagerness to rescue people there from Bashir’s iniquity, we imagined that it was. In Washington it is now fashionable to blame South Sudan’s crisis on a “failure of leadership” there. The real failure, though, was in Washington.
In deciding whether to intervene against foreign tyrants, we should not ask ourselves how brutal they are — although that seems like the obvious standard. The real question is whether our intervention would actually alleviate suffering or, over the long run, cause more. We presumed that in Libya and Sudan we would be able to manage the results of our intervention. Americans like to believe that political tools we prefer — elections, referenda, power-sharing agreements — will work everywhere. We want to imagine that just below the surface of every undemocratic society, Thomas Jefferson and his brethren are waiting to take power. This fantasy has driven us to interventions that weaken our security while intensifying the human suffering they are meant to stop.
Sometimes, as Hamlet reminds us, it is better to bear those ills we have “than fly to others that we know not of.” This harsh truth applies in geopolitics as well as in private life. The United States threw Iraq into chaos by deposing Saddam Hussein without a sound plan for what would follow. More recently we did the same in Libya and South Sudan. We should learn from our shortsightedness. It is never a good idea to attack, destabilize, or seek to depose a government based on the vague hope that a better one will follow.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.