Never doubt the intensity of a Sullivan scorned (at least politically, that is). He is now excoriating the President for his Libya policy, and raising fears of a Libyan quagmire akin to Iraq. Although one would have to be willfully blind not to feel a lot of trepidation over whatever we call Obama’s Libya policy (A war? A police action? A humanitarian intervention?), even a Qaddafian insurgency would not be nearly as deadly as Iraq’s. There are a few reasons for this:
1) Population and population density. Iraq has more than 31 million people; Libya, roughly 6 million. Yes, you heard that right: 6 million. It’s a very large country, but it’s basically empty, mainly because it is mostly desert. It would require far less troops, even under the assumption that the US would commit troops there (which would indeed be crazy, but I’m assuming worst-case scenario here). Before oil was discovered, there was not much there: little wonder that it wasn’t colonized by the Europeans until 1911, and only then by the Italians, desperate for something after they suffered a humiliating defeat at Adowa to the Ethiopians a few years earlier.
2) Safe harbors in neighboring countries. Right now I’m reading Alastair Horne’s magnificent history of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace. Very highly recommended. Horne makes the point that the FLN could regroup and gain stregnth away from French forces by adopting safe harbors in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco. In Iraq, insurgents could go to Iran and Syria, and Sunni insurgents got help from the Saudis. This will be far harder in Libya. Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco do not figure to help out. Chad, Niger and Sudan might, but anyone pursuing Qaddafists will have little compunction pursuing them over the border, and Chad and Niger, highly dependent upon foreign aid, can be pressured into cutting off support.
3) Past experience. Insurgents can appeal to civilians by promising relief from hated regimes and by posing as apostles of national liberation: thus, Muqtada al-Sadr with Iraqi Shiites, or the FLN, or Ho Chi Minh or (fill in blank). That will be much harder for Qaddafists to do. They might get support from those ethnic groups from which Qaddafi’s family comes, but civilians will be under no illusions. This hardly always works, see, e.g. the Taliban, but surely it will have a lot of effect, especially as a Libya-Iraq comparison.
None of this is to say that Libya won’t be a quagmire, or that Obama was right (or even constitutional) in taking his actions (although on balance I think he was — for later). Rather, it is to say that if we are assessing Libya, we shouldn’t think that it is Iraq Act Two.