But at the very least, the intimate connection between the two civil wars should complicate the Libya hawks’ easy moralism. If interventionists want to claim credit for saving lives in Benghazi, they need to acknowledge that their choices may have ended up costing lives in Timbuktu. If they want to point to the immediate consequences of the Libyan war as vindication for a “responsibility to protect” doctrine, they need to acknowledge the second-order consequences for people who will never have the benefits of our protection.
From a strategic perspective, too, toppling a dictator in one country looks rather less impressive if his fall helps give rise to a theocracy nearby. Mali may seem strategically inconsequential today, but so did Afghanistan when the Taliban first swept to power. And Mali is only one example of the spillover from Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster. As Nicolas Pelham wrote in the New York Review of Books last month, “Libya’s turmoil is acquiring continental significance,” influencing insurgencies from Chad to Sinai.
The goal of the Obama White House throughout our Libyan quasi war was to keep our intervention as limited as possible. In this, it largely succeeded. But just because our involvement was limited does not mean that the long-term consequences will be limited as well.