Libya Liberated!

August 21, 2011     
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The downfall of Moammar Gadhafi’s repressive, corrupt, and terroristic regime in Libya is worthy of celebration. For forty-two years this man and his family held the people of Libya hostage. For forty-two years this tyrant supported fellow dictators throughout the region. For forty-two years, this exponent of violence encouraged waves of terrorism directed at innocent civilians in the United States, Western Europe, Israel, and other countries. Gadhafi’s overthrow is a rare piece of good news during what has been a summer of economic and political despair.

The next steps in Libya remain unclear. The rebel forces, based largely in the Eastern part of the country, are not united in their political goals. They have no real experience with governance, and they are not representative of the long-battered population as a whole. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has provided the rebels with air support, supplies, and some political guidance since March 19, but this relationship has been far from smooth.  The end of Gadhafi is not the beginning of democracy or anything close to that.

Cheers for Libya’s liberation should not inspire claims of “victory” or naive statements about “democracy on the march.” Americans, in particular, must learn that there is a lot in-between Gadhafi-like despotism and the democracy we take for granted. Libya has moved into that vague space of “transition,” and it brings many opportunities and challenges that deserve our close attention.

1. Who will distribute water, electricity, food, and other necessities? The mid-level managers of Gadhafi’s regime are the people who know how to accomplish these tasks. They are actually pretty good at their jobs. The rebels do not have the requisite experience to take over basic societal management. The NATO allies and the United Nations should work to encourage cooperation between Gadhafi-regime mid-level managers and the new rebel government. Prosecute Gadhafi, his family, and their high-level advisors. Do not purge beyond that. Please no replay of de-Bathification in Iraq!

2. Who will take control of Libya’s vast wealth in cash, oil, and other commodities? This is a country with extraordinary resource endowments, despite its abject poverty. Unlike Afghanistan, Libya suffers from the classic “resource curse” where a few elites, like Gadhafi, hoard all the wealth. The NATO allies and the United Nations must encourage a process of wealth sharing among tribes, groups, and citizens. The wealth should be accounted for in transparent ways, it should be shared, and it should be invested in the society. Americans, in particular, must avoid the temptation to support a new strongman who will simply take all the money. No Hamid Karzai for Libya, please! Economic distribution is actually more important than political unity. Building transparent institutions for banking and investment should be a very high priority.

3. Where are the Saudis and the Iranians? America’s chief Arab ally in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia) and America’s leading regional adversary (Iran) are both poised to step into the political vacuum created by Gadhafi’s removal. NATO and the UN cannot allow this to happen. The Saudis will move to create another dictatorial regime which assures the stable flow of oil, without broader political participation. This will be a recipe for renewed violence and civil war. The Iranians will seek to turn Libya into yet another arena for their regional expansion, including attacks on American and West European interests. This will be a recipe for increased conflict throughout the Middle East. The United States, in particular, must put a strong effort into dual containment: keep both the Saudis and the Iranians out. This will require some calibrated threats from Washington, and persuasive diplomacy.

As in every case of regime overthrow and nation-building, the moment of liberation is also the moment of renewed challenges. Libya has a very long way to go, and no one outside the country (including the United States) can lead the long-suffering society to an assured future. The choice is not between direct intervention or benign neglect. The real opportunity is to put the hard-earned wisdom of nation-building over the last century to work with intelligent actions calibrated to limited purposes.

The international community has the ability to encourage good choices in post-Gadhafi Libya. The United States, among others, can help by devoting serious attention to the basic needs, wealth distribution, and geopolitical threats confronting Libya. American actions should include a restrained but serious mix of aid, advice, and very selective armed activity.  Above all, President Obama should praise the courage of Libyans who have liberated themselves, and promise them that the international community will do whatever it can to help them help themselves in coming days. That is, in fact, what nation-building is all about.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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