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The best and most relevant study I have yet read on this question is an as-yet unpublished working paper by Alexander Downes of Duke University, which you can find on his website here.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.
Why? According to Downes, because deposing an existing regime and bringing new leaders to power "disrupts state power and foments grievances and resentments." To make matter worse, the probability of civil war in the aftermath of foreign imposed regime change increases even more when it is accompanied by defeat in inter-state war, and when it occurs in poor and ethnically heterogeneous countries." This isn't reassuring either, given that Libya's is still a poor society (because the Qaddafi family monopolizes the oil revenues) and it remains divided into potentially fractious tribes.
Here's the bottom line (my emphasis):
[Foreign imposed regime change] is likely to spur resistance and civil war in those countries where the United States and other advanced democracies are most likely to undertake such intervention [i.e., poor, weak states]; the situation is made even bleaker if war is needed to overthrow the existing regime. . . [O]verthrowing other governments (and bringing new leaders to power rather than restoring previous rulers) is a policy instrument with limited utility because of its potential to ignite civil wars. These conflicts may in turn result in the imposed regime's ouster or draw interveners into costly occupations."
By the way, Downes also has another paper (co-authored with Jonathan Monten of the LSE) which finds that "states that have their governments removed by a democracy gain no significant democratic benefit compared to similar states that do not experience intervention." Democratic intervention does have positive effects (on average) in relatively wealthy and homogeneous societies, but "evidence from past experience suggests that imposed regime change by democratic states is unlikely to be an effective means of spreading democracy," especially when one factors in the costs.
We should all hope that Libya proves to be an exception to this tendency, but 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. Heading off that possibility is likely to require a costly and extended international commitment, which is precisely what the people who launched this operation promised they would not do. We'll see.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.