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War and Peace in the 21st Century: Applying the Lessons Learned in Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya

Updated on May 24, 2011
Fibonacci Blue |  Minneapolis, Minnesota - Protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; March 20, 2010
Fibonacci Blue | Minneapolis, Minnesota - Protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; March 20, 2010 | Source

The first week of unrest in Libya was the week of February 13th. Nearly a month later, on March 18th, President Obama spoke hesitantly in favor of a no-fly zone. This gap of time shows that the Obama administration reflected on the lessons learned from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before making decisions concerning Libya.  While the Obama Administration continues to make the correct decisions to ensure that the US will not make the same mistakes it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are still some decisions to be made with caution.

Of the numerous lessons learned from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the most important lessons is that foreign entities should not forcefully impose a rapid transfer of political power. In Iraq, The George W Bush administration chose to remove Saddam Hussein forcefully from power without giving substantial thought to “postwar governance costs” (Lake, 11). According to David Lake in his article, “Two Cheers for Bargaining Theory: Assessing Rationalist Explanations of the Iraq War,” the Bush administration assumed that the Iraqis would be able to build their own democratic state with little help and resources. Since, according to Deputy Defense Secretary at the time, Paul Wolfowitz, the increased oil revenue would pay for any postwar reconstruction necessary (Lake, 11).

Unfortunately, this was not the case and the Iraq war has cost the United States billions of dollars in addition to human losses, an increase in Arab anti-Americanism, and a downgrade in international reputation (Lake, 11). In Afghanistan, George W Bush worked to overthrow the Taliban government in Kabul and was also not prepared for the aftermath of the war, still the nation-building effort continues without an end in sight. 

Reflecting on these outcomes, Obama rejected that course of action this time around and has made it clear that the US alone will not be responsible for a nation-building effort in Libya.  In Obama’s speech at the National Defense University in Washington he said,"To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq…regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya" (The White House). The United States does not have unlimited resources, and especially now in a fiscal crisis, the role of the United States in international affairs is being challenged. President Obama is right; the United States cannot afford the unexpected outcomes of anymore overseas operations.

Although the US is leading the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama explicitly expressed that he did not want to repeat George W Bush’s unilateral approach in Libya (The White House). While some political scientists assert that America is on a hegemonic decline, the Unites States is the international military superpower.  Obama has repeatedly stated he is unwilling to deploy ground troops in Libya, and by doing so the President is correctly signaling that the US will have limited involvement in Libya. To ensure this limited involvement, the US officially transferred all commanding power of air operations to NATO on March 31st (The Christian Science Monitor). Since the transfer of power to NATO, U.S. planes account for only 15 percent of planes during air strikes (

However, the most recent debate is whether or not the US should arm the Libyan rebels against pro-Quaddafi forces. Already, there are Egyptian and US special-forces providing covert training to rebels ( While this isn’t deploying ground troops and giving them weapons per se, the US is arming the rebels with knowledge. There is hesitancy to arm the rebels because it may burden the US with nation-building responsibilities as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Also, if the US armed the rebels, it may send conflicting signals to the international community, since the US officially transferred power to NATO. Arming the rebels may seem like the US would be undermining its efforts for the Libyan intervention to be a multilateral effort. The US should not supply the arms because that action would assume the postwar responsibilities. However,  instead of posing this question to the United States alone, Britain and France should take the responsibility. Britain and France are equally able to train civilians and supply resources and do not have two other, rather unsuccessful, wars in the same region like the US does.

To avoid US responsibility for nation-building efforts after the removal of Quaddafi, the US should not be the only contributor of any resource to Libya and has correctly signaled that the US will not choose a leader for the Libyans or choose a governance system for the Libyans. This is a wise decision since, as President Obama said, the US had tried that before and it is not working out well. Imposing the American “western” lifestyle and governance upon Iraq and Afghanistan increased Arab anti-Americanism and served to counteract any efforts made within the region (Lake, 11). 

In Afghanistan, military force did not achieve its long-term goals since military force alone cannot align itself with social and political needs in a postwar environment (Biddle, p.3). Libya’s postwar environment will inevitably need political and economic resources, but the US alone should not dictate Libya’s political or cultural future. Again, any action that the US takes unilaterally will assume postwar responsibilities that it cannot afford. While President Obama has correctly exerted pressure on the Libyans to dictate their own future, the Libyans can also learn from the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and decide for themselves if they’d like to try a centralized democracy, or a mixed sovereignty model, or something completely different (Biddle, p. 3).

While the Obama administration has handled itself correctly to avoid past mistakes, the US still does not have a clear mission in Libya. In Iraq, the Bush administration had a variety of explanations for why the US went to war ranging from weapons of mass destruction to ending oppression. This was one of the largest contributing factors to why the war has not ended-the project became too multifaceted with each claim. While President Obama has expressed a desire for Quaddafi to go and support for the rebels, he has not set definitive means for removing Quaddafi from power. While time will tell if the Obama administration becomes more involved in Libya, whatever decisions arise will need to be clear both to the Libyans and to the American public.

The role of the United States is changing. While the US’ aim may not be to “Christianize, civilize, and colonize” like it was during the age of American Imperialism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have signaled a new aim:  to democratize and westernize the Arab world. The choices which have been made concerning Libya, and those which have yet to be made, have the potential to change this perceived mentality and to possibly reverse some of the Arab anti-Americanism caused by the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By applying the lessons learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya, like the Obama administration has been doing, the US’ limited postwar responsibility in Libya can cause a seamless, positive shift in the perceived aim of the US. 


The White House. “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya.” 2011. The White House, 28 March. <>. Accessed: April 9, 2011.

The Christian Science Monitor. “Libya timeline: Rebels and Qaddafi's troops still battling for Brega.” 2011. The Christian Science Monitor, 22 March. <>. Accessed: April 9, 2011 “Gen.: U.S. troops not ideal, but may be considered in Libya.” 2011., 7 April. <>. Accessed: April 9, 2011 “No Boots on the Ground? U.S. Special Forces wear sneakers? Libyan rebels receive military traning.” 2011., 10 April. <>. Accessed: April 10, 2011

Biddle, Stephen, Fotinii Chrstia, and J Alexander Their. 2010. Defining Success in Afghanistan. Foreign Affairs, Volume 89, Issue 4: 48-60

Lake, David. 2010/11. Two Cheers for Bargaining Theory: Assessing Rationalist Explanations of the Iraq War. International Security, Volume 35: 7-52


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