Never Let Them See You Sweat

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The Council on Foreign Relations’ Les Gelb warns that the failure of the U.S.-backed Libyan rebels to depose Muammar Gaddafi is providing comfort in certain nefarious foreign capitals:

Here’s what America’s worst enemies like Iran and North Korea are spouting on the international circuit about Libya: If the vaunted and mighty NATO and the U.S. can’t humble that weirdo Col. Gaddafi and his pint-size army, “what do we have to worry about?” To be sure, NATO and the U.S. haven’t hit Gaddafi with all they have for fear of killing civilians…. And while the West’s enemies know well NATO’s self-imposed restrictions on air attacks, they assume that NATO and the U.S. would put such limitations on themselves no matter where they fought. Thus, to Tehran and Pyongyang, the lesson of Libya is that the West can’t do decisive harm to them….

[A]s time passes inconclusively in Libya, it becomes harder still to convince Iran and North Korea that NATO is not a paper tiger.

Gelb is just offering a diagnosis, and not arguing for a military escalation. (He’s been a pointed skeptic of this venture from the start, as well as of the war in Afghanistan). But others inevitably will. Gelb is articulating a concern that accompanies–and dramatically complicates–nearly every U.S. military action abroad. Namely, that any time American troops start shooting they had better win, because we can’t ever be seen as weak or ineffective abroad. I’m convinced that Obama officials worry as much about the symbolism of “losing” in Afghanistan as they do about the strategic consequences. (The Bush team applied similar logic to Iraq, warning against a “defeat” that would “embolden the terrorists.”)

In truth, it’s not clear what lessons Iran and North Korea may be drawing from the emerging Libyan stalemate. Tehran may well have been spooked at Obama’s willingness to bomb another Muslim country. And Pyongyang has always known that its nuclear weapons–and the thousands of rockets it has aimed at Seoul–amount to a nearly foolproof protection racket.

With that in mind, the most significant effect of the Libyan operation might be the one described by Jeffrey Goldberg:

If I were an Iranian leader, and I was watching how the West is treating the nuclear-free Muammar Qaddafi, I would certainly be redoubling my efforts to cross the nuclear threshold. After all, you don’t see a no-fly zone over North Korea, do you? There’s a reason for that. There won’t be any such thing as a no-fly-zone over a country that is known for sure to possess nuclear weapons.