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Drive-by interventionism: Does Libya's fate hold lessons for Syria?

The Libyan revolution celebrated its first anniversary last week, and though there were a few news stories and blog posts about it, the milestone didn't attract as much attention as one might have expected. Instead, the focus of debate has moved on to the grim tragedy unfolding in Syria, and the perpetual sabre-rattling over Iran, not to mention vital issues such as whether 1) Santorum or Romney will win Michigan, 2) Jeremy Lin is a fluke or a phenom, and 3) Bobby Brown was treated badly by the security team at ex-wife Whitney Houston's funeral.

Meanwhile, what about Libya? There's no question that efforts to build a stable, legitimate, and effective post-Qaddafi government haven't gone all that well, belying the confident proclamations that rebel leaders made during the fighting itself. The National Transitional Council is increasingly seen as weak and ineffective, dozens of armed militias continue to hold sway throughout the country, and radical Islamists are openly contending for power. Amnesty International reports that human rights abuses are widespread, including acts of torture, extra-judicial executions, and acts of retribution against ethnic minorities. Thousands of man-portable surface-to-air missiles remain unaccounted for, and some of the weapons may be helping fuel conflicts in neighboring countries and maybe even getting into the hands of terrorists.

Does this mean the effort to topple Qaddafi was a mistake? Those of us who were skeptical about the wisdom of the operation might be tempted to declare our view vindicated, but to do so would be just as foolhardy as George W. Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq. Fixing a country as screwed up as Libya was is going to take time, and I still believe we won't really know the answer for another year or two at least.

What is more troubling to me is the short attention span we seem to have about these events. The foreign policy community is like a kid with ADD: A crisis erupts, and there's a sudden flurry of interest and activity. Advisors huddle and plan, spokespersons proclaim, diplomats confer, pundits opine, and yes, bloggers like me type our hearts out for awhile. And then the moment passes (often as soon as the former ruler does), and attention moves on to the next set of headlines. A year ago, Libya; today, Syria, tomorrow, who?

And in the meantime, Libyans are more-or-less left to their fate. Yes, there is a UN mission there, and yes, the United States has pledged a modest amount of aid. In particular, we are funding a program to buy up the remnants of Qaddafi's arsenal of weapons, which tells you that we care more about that issue than we do about the condition of the Libyan people. As you can read about in this very useful Congressional Research Service study, a few Congressmen have inserted various Libya-oriented programs into various authorization bills, which suggests that a few people in Washington are still engaged by the issue. But overall, one doesn't get the sense that Libya is taking up much bandwidth in the foreign policy establishment anymore.

Mind you, I'm not saying that the United States should be offering Libya a new Marshall Plan, or trying to conduct an ambitious "state-building" operation there. We've tried that in some other places and our track record isn't encouraging. But I worry that while we may have lost our appetite for state-building, we haven't lost our appetite for state-destroying (otherwise known as regime change). Call it a policy of "drive-by interventionism": We'll help take out this month's bad guy (and let's be clear, the leaders we've gone after lately have been pretty despicable), but then we'll leave it to others to sort out the bodies and rebuild the institutions. If they do. And if things go south later, well, by then we'll have moved on.

In some ways, this is the central tension in America's current global posture. Despite some largely rhetorical efforts to emphasize diplomacy, development, and other forms of "civilian power," our approach to contemporary security problems continues to privilege the sharp end of the stick. Outside powers cannot build functioning states on the ashes of the old without committing massive resources to the task -- and it may not work even if you do -- and the United States and its allies have neither the resources nor the motivation to do that anymore. Instead, we send drones and planes and Special Forces to topple governments who have fallen from favor. These policy instruments are cheap and sometimes effective, but they are of little or no value when it's time to rebuild.

Again: it's too soon to say whether the Libyan adventure will turn out well or not. But thus far, it is a cautionary tale for those who are now eager to do something similar in Syria. I share the widespread desire to see Assad give up power and accede to the demands for reform, but we have no way of knowing whether aid to the rebels will hasten that shared goal or simply ignite an even more punishing civil war. In other words, be careful what you wish for: There's hardly any situation that is so bad that it couldn't get worse.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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