What does social science tell us about intervention in Libya… or much else?

Stephen Walt writes:

Before France, Britain, and the United States stumbled into its current attempt to dislodge Muammar al-Qaddafi from power in Libya — and let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what they are trying to do — did anyone bother to ask what recent social science tells us about the likely results of our intervention?

I doubt it, because recent research suggests that we are likely to be disappointed by the outcome. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) “has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945.” Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy.” Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.

The best and most relevant study I have yet read on this question is an as-yet unpublished working paper by Alexander Downes of Duke University, which you can find on his website here. Using a more sophisticated research design, Downes examined 100 cases of “foreign imposed regime change” going all the way back to 1816. In particular, his analysis takes into account “selection effects” (i.e., the fact that foreign powers are more likely to intervene in states that already have lots of problems, so you would expect these states to have more problems afterwards too). He finds that foreign intervention tends to promote stability when the intervening powers are seeking to restore a previously deposed ruler. But when foreign interveners oust an existing ruler and impose a wholly new government (which is what we are trying to do in Libya), the likelihood of civil war more than triples.

It’s not as though Susan Rice and Samantha Power lack grounding in the social sciences, but if President Obama, when being pressed to authorize an urgent intervention in Libya, had responded by calling for a report to see what useful lessons social scientists had drawn from previous interventions, his request might have been greeted with an exclamation: “give me a break!” or at least a polite admonition: “we don’t have the time.” But even if the situation was not quite as urgent, how much could social science reveal about the situation in Libya?

The problem is, social science isn’t science. In real science, you can test theories by running multiple experiments, changing the variables and comparing the different outcomes. You can’t prove that something is true if there are no means by which it could be proved false. In this case, all a social scientist can do is posit a number of what are deemed to be parallel cases, pointing to the outcomes there and then and predict a similar outcome in Libya.

But whatever generalizations you want to make, it’s hard to dispute the Colonel Gaddafi is one of a kind and however important the lessons from history might be, they do no more than suggest a number of possible outcomes. Indeed, we do well to remember that only a matter of weeks ago scholarly opinion was quite confident in asserting that Egypt was not ripe for revolution. History is not a process of endless repetition and there are periods of change when it becomes foolish to predict with much conviction what is going to happen.

In real life we make choices and the nature of most major decisions is that they foreclose the possibility of backtracking and finding out the consequences of each alternative.

The US and its allies chose to intervene in Libya and now those who doubt the wisdom of that choice can second guess it and make all sorts of claims about how things would have worked out better if that choice had not been made. These are to a significant degree idle forms of speculation because they involve making unprovable claims. There is no parallel reality in which we can observe what would have happened had UN Res. 1973 not passed and the intervention thus not occurred. The only incontrovertable statements are of the kind, we wouldn’t be spending $300 million a week on an intervention in Libya if we hadn’t intervened in Libya. You don’t say?

Walt concludes, “these various scholarly studies suggest that the probability that our intervention will yield a stable democracy is low, and that our decision to intervene has increased the likelihood of civil war.”

Who claimed this intervention was going to lead to a stable democracy? At this point there has yet to be a clear consensus on what the operation’s aims are. I haven’t heard any grand predictions about the dawn of a new democracy. This sounds like another instance of the echoes of Iraq emerging out of silence.

As for the risks of civil war, many of the skeptics claim that a civil war had already started. That, I would dispute.

By the point at which Gaddafi’s power briefly appeared not to reach far out of Tripoli, the uprising had all the marks of being a popular and contagious rejection of his rule. Had he not already anticipated the need to guard his power by relying on foreign mercenaries, he would most likely already be gone.

And as for the danger of instability in a post-Gaddafi Libya, the truth is that in a revolutionary society, stability is just another name for oppression. It might look appealing to those of us outside for whom it has tangible benefits, like lower oil prices, but for the Libyans who have risen up to overthrow a tyrant, the prize of freedom they seek is all that they can now accept — even if the price is turmoil.

Does that sound like Rumsfeld’s view of the collapse of civil order in Baghdad? Superficially, but the rupture Iraq went through was triggered by an American invasion. This time around the outsiders have inserted themselves (though not literally stepped in) at a point at which a society was already being ripped apart. We didn’t make this happen.

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