Yesterday, I had the chance to speak to a group of Global Affairs Canada (Canada's State Dept that changes its name every few years) who were taking a short course on security issues. My job was to discuss the various flavors of multilateralism that Canada can choose from--NATO, coalitions of the willing, UN--when intervening around the world. Of course, I talked the most about NATO since that is the one that I know the most.
Anyhow, in the course of conversation, one of "favorite" topics came up: in reaction to a question about Responsibility to Protect (a UN 'norm' that Canada promoted), I suggested that we have two choices when an R2P situation arises: regime change or come up with some kind of deal that leads to power-sharing or its alternatives. And the regime change option is mostly dead these days because we have learned that we are good at breaking regimes but not replacing them.
I have been calling for humility lately precisely because the lessons of Afghanistan and Libya include: the local leaders appointed or sponsored or supported by the outsiders have their own agendas. Whenever I hear folks criticize Obama and others over Syria, I ask: who should we have supported and how? What are the alternatives to ISIS or Assad? The Kurds? That gets complicated fast and only resolves who rules in relatively small spots, not in the entire countries of Syria or Iraq.
The good news is that folks are more aware of this problem. Hence an article on the next steps in Libya with the basic question being asked: who do we send the arms to? Good start, but even if we find suitable proxies, how do know or ensure that they use the weapons in ways that we intend?
As always, we have lousy choices. As long as we know they are lousy, we can go in with eyes wide open and try to figure out who we can support, what kind of support would be least problematic if it gets into the wrong hands (hence no ground to air missiles), and perhaps what measures to take to incentivize our "friends" to do what we would like and not do what we would dislike.