Libya after Qadhafi

Following the entry of Libya’s rebels1 into Tripoli last night was exhilarating. A civil war2 that had lasted much longer than initially expected seems to be finally nearing an end, even if Tripoli is still not fully controlled and other parts of the country remain in the hands of Qadhafi loyalists. Whether or not you supported NATO intervention in Libya, it’s a magnificent moment to see another dictator fall, especially one like Qadhafi who for 42 years ran one of the most brutal regimes in the region. Libyans have never really had a chance at defining their own identity and forging their own future — not under the monarchy, and certainly not under Qadhafi — and like in Tunisia or Egypt, the most amazing thing is that this is now more possible than it ever was.

Taking early stock of the Libyan civil war of 2011 (hoping it will soon be over), the first priority is how to carry out this transition. The TNC has the advantage of having been formed over six months ago, incorporating former members of the regime and figures from across the country, and having planned for this moment for some extent. It has diplomatic recognition, and enough credibility to secure aid, cash, weapons and other help foreign partners. In the eyes of the oil companies that are likely to be key in financing Libya’s post-war reconstruction, it also has enough credibility to be seen as an entity one can do business with.

There is already much hand-wringing about how this transition might take place. The truth is the rebels, once they had secured Western backing, never had any incentive to negotiate with the Qadhafi regime. There were multiple diplomatic attempts at doing so, but they were scuttled by the rebels and key Western powers much more than by Qadhafi. We can leave it to historians to argue whether this might have saved lives or provided a better blueprint for a Libyan transition to a post-Qadhafi regime. But the question of negotiating with the regime’s remnants now becomes more crucial. TNC officials have given some signs that they were not interested in revanchisme, although it’s hard to know how much control they can really exert over what amounts to a large, diffuse coalition of anti-Qadhafi forces that — once the Brother Leader is killed, exiled or arrested — may have less common cause. There are a lot of light weapons in the hands of volunteer fighters in Libya, and like in any conflict, it’s hard to predict what they might end up doing with them in the coming transition.3

Libyans will decide the fate of their country once the dust settles. In the meantime, the wider debate about what role outsiders should have in the Libyan civil war continues. For those who opposed NATO intervention4, the fall of Qadhafi can still be celebrated, and I was aghast to still see some who condemned what was happening last night, either defending Qadhafi’s record or muttering about oil interests. If the rebels had succeeded in bringing down Qadhafi without external intervention, would they still be saying the same thing? Yet, likewise, principled opposition to NATO intervention and that last night’s events might not have taken place were it not for NATO’s air cover does not mean the critics were wrong. In the last few days in particular, NATO’s actions went far beyond the remit of UNSC 1973 and were clearly in breach of international law. Whether anyone will really care about now will depend largely whether the Qadhafi regime’s claims of mass casualities yesterday (over 1300 according to Musa Ibrahim) are borne out by the independent testimony of organizations like the ICRC.

Personally, as happy as I am about last night’s developments, I fear that the fall of Qadhafi is already being spun to sanctify the principle of humanitarian interventionism, which I am against, after its misuse in Iraq. The case might be made that the principle of Responsibility To Protect (R2P) will get a boost out of the Libya case, and perhaps the case can be made that no-fly zones have proven their effectiveness. NATO went further than that, though, and that troubles me — because that’s not what the citizens of NATO countries were told would happen, and it’s not what the UN sanctioned.

The usual blowhard neo-con commentators are now using this not only to defend the idea of humanitarian interventionism, but to bash Obama for not committing greater resources (and presumably more aggressive tactics) to NATO because it might have ended the civil war more quickly. That’s impossible to know, though, and to me remains as dubious as the argument that not intervening at all would have spared us six months of civil war and a Libya that might be destabilized in the long-term.

More worrying are the calls by the likes of Max Boot for a “stabilization force”:

If Libya is to arrive at the destination we would all like to see–if it is to emerge as a liberal, Western-style democracy–much hard work lies ahead. As I have been arguing for awhile, it is vitally important NATO be ready to help stabilize the situation, to prevent Qaddafi’s supporters from mounting an insurgency, to keep potent weapons from slipping out of governmental control–in short to ensure Libya does not suffer the fate of Iraq or Afghanistan, which descended into chaos after the collapse of their regimes. That will probably require the deployment of a stabilization force to work with the Transitional National Council and buttress its shaky authority.

Considering the Libyan rebels have done all the ground work by themselves, one wonders whether they either want or need foreign troops to help them out. More importantly for outsiders, I don’t think Americans or Europeans need to finance one or get into yet another difficult deployment abroad. Has this man ever seen an occupation he didn’t like? I’m not sure whether the TNC has raised the possbility of a “stabilization force”, but I certainly hope it does not ask for one.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the likes of Boot making the argument. CFR grandee Richard Haass, as establishment a figure in American foreign policy as you can get, is making the same kind of arguments:

What is also all but certain is that the Libyans will not be able to manage the situation about to emerge on their own. Col Gaddafi did his best to ensure that there would be no national institution in a position to challenge him; despite the efforts of regime opponents to forge a common front, the result is that there is no national institution ready and able to take over from him.

All of this poses serious challenges to the outside world. Nato’s airplanes helped bring about the rebel victory. The “humanitarian” intervention introduced to save lives believed to be threatened was in fact a political intervention introduced to bring about regime change.

Now Nato has to deal with its own success. Some sort of international assistance, and most likely an international force, is likely to be needed for some time to restore and maintain order. Looting must be prevented. Die-hard regime supporters will have to be defeated. Tribal war must be averted. Justice and not revenge need to be the order of the day if Libya is not to come to resemble the civil war of post-Saddam Iraq in the first instance, or the chaos (and terrorism) of Somalia and Yemen down the road.

It is up to Nato, the European Union and the UN, working with the Libyan opposition, the African Union, and the Arab League, to put together a response to the new Libyan reality – a reality that includes 1m refugees, several hundred thousand internally displaced civilians, and a country capable of producing some 2bn barrels of oil a day.

Most importantly, US president Barack Obama may need to reconsider his assertion that there would not be any American boots on the ground; leadership is hard to assert absent participation. But whatever the international response, speed is essential. The passage of time is unlikely to make the options any easier or more appealing.

I find it simply astonishing that Haass puts the idea of foreign deployment in Libya ahead of finally giving backing to diplomatic initiatives. I would advocate instead that the TNC be cut off (from military and financial help) if it does not engage in serious peacemaking as soon as Qadhafi is out of the way. But idea of foreign troops in Libya at this stage, when Libyans are taking ownership of their country, is mind-boggling. The truth is that the TNC is close to a position where it can do what it wants. It has the ability to raise funds quickly as soon as it establishes control over Libya’s oil infrastructure (no doubt oil companies are already lining up to give it advances in exchange for future production and contracts). It will soon no longer need NATO. It is up to it to decide what kind of transition it wants in Libya, and how to enforce it.

But at least Haass is honest that this was no humanitarian intervention, but rather a political one. I think it has multiple causes (and different ones for, say, Sarkozy, Cameron, Berlusconi or Obama) but ultimately will be driven by energy concerns. Libya will need Western oil majors for the development of its petroleum infrastructure (just as Qadhafi needed them before) and the next Libyan government will figure out what kind of relationship to have with them. It may understandably have gratitude towards NATO members. But it need not have their troops on the ground while negotiating this.


  1. I know their supporters on Twitter prefer “Freedom Fighters”, but I like rebels and don’t see it as pejorative. ↩

  2. Another term some don’t like, but that may remain appropriate until hostilities die down and a peace and reconciliation process is underway. ↩

  3. There was a telling report last night that, in some parts of Tripoli, some rebels were already beginning to disarm volunteer fighters. ↩

  4. For the record I was and remain very ambivalent. ↩