The New York Times ran an unfair headline the other day: "Arab Nations Strike in Libya, Surprising U.S." It was unfair not because it was inaccurate but because the latter phrase suggested there was something noteworthy in our surprise. When it comes to events abroad, surprise is our natural state.
This is particularly true in places where we have engaged in military hostilities. It may be hard to remember, but Libya used to be placed in the win column. Back in 2011, we deployed air power in concert with NATO on behalf of rebels fighting dictator Moammar Gadhafi—leading to his downfall and eventual death.
President Barack Obama went to the United Nations to proclaim, "Libya is a lesson in what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one." Even Mitt Romney, who was then running for the Republican presidential nomination, gave Obama credit for the happy outcome.
So you may not have been expecting the subsequent developments. "Energy-rich Libya has slipped ever deeper into chaos since the toppling of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011," reports the Los Angeles Times. "The armed groups that were allies in the fight to depose him have turned on one another, fighting for oil wealth and political control."
We did not see any of that coming because before, during, and after our armed intervention, we knew little about Libya and made no effort to learn. Lack of knowledge never stops us. We were largely ignorant of Afghanistan when we arrived, just as we were grossly underinformed about Iraq at the time of our 2003 invasion.
President George W. Bush once described Afghan President Hamid Karzai as a man of "honor, courage, and skill helping to build a new and democratic Afghanistan." It therefore came as a bit of a shock when he turned out to be a corrupt autocrat who rigged elections and accused us of collaborating with the Taliban to kill Afghans.
The Bush administration likewise promised that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq in a war that would be over in a few weeks or months. One of Bush's cheerleaders, William Kristol of The Weekly Standard, asserted in 2002, "We can remove Saddam because that could start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy."
He was one of many hawks who didn't know enough about Iraq or the Arab world to realize that the chain reaction we started would lead to a sectarian bloodbath that cost nearly 4,500 American lives.
The advocates had no clue of the realities of Iraqi society and politics—yet they acted as though they could clearly foresee the aftermath of our invasion. Years later, they retain both their ignorance and their confidence.
Kristol scoffs at those who called for a long debate over whether to bomb the Islamic State forces. "What's the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?" he asked recently. "I don't think there's much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there."
Conservative politicians echo his sentiment. Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk said of the Islamic State jihadists, "The president should bomb the hell out of them to end this." Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said the U.S. should "bomb them back to the Stone Age."
From his blithe prescription you would never know that Kristol and his compatriots have a poor track record scoping out the unanticipated and bad side effects of military action. Their remarks bring to mind what allegedly are the most common last words among redneck males: "Hold my beer and watch this!"
They don't mention, and may not know, that the last war in Iraq spawned the very group hawks now want to bomb. The head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent five years in a U.S. detention facility there.
"At every turn, Baghdadi's rise has been shaped by the United States' involvement in Iraq," reports The New York Times. "The American invasion presented Baghdadi and his allies with a ready-made enemy and recruiting draw. And the American ouster of Saddam Hussein, whose brutal dictatorship had kept a lid on extremist Islamist movements, gave Baghdadi the freedom for his radical views to flourish."
Those who want to wage war against this group assume that our use of military power is bound to yield a positive outcome. Their recommendations should carry a warning: Actual results may surprise.