A New Day in Libya: Brief Thoughts on What Happened and What to Watch For

This weekend brought good news for those who have lived under the oppressive regime of Moammar Qaddafi for all or part of his 42 year reign of terror, as the dress-wearing perma-Colonel and his regime have been largely overthrown after a months-long civil war.   As has been noted across the international affairs-sphere over the course of the last 24 hours, the toppling of Qaddafi’s regime is not the end of Libya’s challenges, but merely a preliminary accomplishment in what will likely be a long, hard slog toward self-determination and, hopefully, national security, stability, and success.


In a statement this afternoon, President Obama took credit on NATO’s behalf for playing a significant role in this development, and called on Libya to pave a way forward that is “peaceful, inclusive, and just,” and which relies on a peaceful settling of differences rather than on reprisals for justice.  Though these admonitions will likely make little difference to those on the ground in North Africa, they are correct: Libya’s future will hinge on how the aftermath of Qaddafi’s overthrow, and its accompanying unifying euphoria, is handled by the citizenry and by those who are currently carrying the guns.

Though I’m admittedly not an expert on Libya itself, I’d like to address a couple issues of note (out of many) below the fold.

The quick end to what had been a protracted civil war was in part the result of NATO’s increased ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) effort, offensive operations, and the placing of (non-American) boots on the ground.  It should be no surprise that more assets and effort provided the largely disorganized, inexperienced rebels with a boost, and the addition of ground forces even in the smallest of numbers provided training (and likely targeting) opportunities that simply weren’t there when NATO’s entire share of the campaign was being conducted from the air.  The results of this NATO push have, in turn, led some to question why such allied involvement did not come sooner, and in far greater force, than it originally did (others, as might be expected, have championed Qaddafi’s toppling as vindication of President Obama’s knuckleheaded “leading from behind” strategy).  This is a delicate issue, and one which can only be addressed as a hypothetical.


While the timing of the UN’s and NATO’s involvement likely could not have been changed due to the lack of political will for intervention that existed prior to Qaddafi’s move on Benghazi itself, the dictates of the UN resolution, which called not for regime change but for the protection of civilians, put NATO on shaky ground from the beginning.  The result was extremely muddled communication about operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector, as well as a lack of clarity about what exactly NATO was trying to accomplish in Libya.  Was it solely the protection of civilians, as the UN resolution expressly stated, or was it the removal of Qaddafi’s regime?  For the past several months, NATO has appeared to be trying to have it both ways, with the result being – as may be expected – that neither task was being done well.  Even a willingness to deploy a force of forward observers (primarily Air Force JTACs, working as members of small special operations teams, such as Special Forces ODAs, the French equivalent of which may have been present later in the conflict) could have made a big difference in target selection and accuracy, as well as in protecting civilians on the ground – the raison d’etre of NATO’s involvement in Libya.

Though a lack of ground involvement by NATO forces for much of this civil war inarguably increased its duration, and arguably led to more civilian deaths than there may have been had ground forces been present (bearing in mind that the UNSCR authorizing action in Libya did not authorize the deployment of an “occupation force), there is a case to be made that the way the civil war played out was positive in its own right (in the macro, of course, and excepting such obvious negatives as the significant civilian deaths that resulted from the fighting, as well as the atrocities committed by members of the rebel coalition).  First, five months of fighting allowed members of the coalition, the vast majority of whom were thoroughly green when the battle began, to become relatively seasoned fighters who learned resilience in the heat of combat (if not the discipline and tactical knowledge that accompanies – and defines – professional soldiery).  Second, the lengthy battle and the peripheral participation by NATO has allowed the Libyans to own this victory, and to own its aftermath as well.  The “Pottery Barn Rule” applies here to a degree, particularly on the part of the European states that provided the most military support for the rebels (and who are the most economically dependent on Libya’s oil resources), but there is a significant difference between steamrolling through a foreign state, toppling its regime, and then asking for thanks while leaving much of the cleanup to its residents, and allowing the domestic opposition to do much of the “breaking” itself.  The central role the Libyan opposition played in the overthrow of Qaddafi will hopefully encourage them to take complete ownership of the results and the aftermath, and compel them to build a state in the image of that which they desired under Qaddafi, rather than that in which they lived under Qaddafi.


Finally, the length of the engagement allowed the opposition time to grow from a disorganized hodge-podge of Libyans who were bound only by their opposition to Qaddafi and his murderous regime, into a more organized, cohesive body that was able to promote and adopt more a more strategic outlook on the conflict itself, while also laying a foundation for its aftermath.  Had NATO intervened in force, ending Qaddafi’s reign in the “days, not weeks” that President Obama foolishly promised when advising the American people of his decision to take part in this “kinetic military action” a week after the first Tomahawks had been launched, the result may well have been far more chaotic.  Instead, months of stalemate provided the succeeding coalition with time to become more of a coalition, and to lay the groundwork for what comes next.  Whether that groundwork, and the coalition which laid it while fighting with NATO support to oust Qaddafi, is sufficient to hold up in the aftermath of this war remains to be seen.  Below, I discuss in very brief detail some (but by no means all) of the issues which will bear watching during that “what comes next” phase of Libya’s quest for liberation and autonomy.

One of the initial issues to look for going forward in Libya is, as Joshua Tucker termed it, the “Insiders vs. Outsiders” dynamic.  This begins in the immediate aftermath of the governmental overthrow: how will the conquering force and the public at large treat regime officials, Qaddafi family members, and those who are viewed as being guilty by association with, or are suspected of supporting, the ousted regime?  History provides plenty of examples of how not to handle a transition, with the de-Ba’athification of Iraq serving as a recent example, and others coming from elsewhere in time an geography (thanks to Mr. Dickens’ illustrative writing, the Reign of Terror which  capped the events of the French Revolution come to mind as a particularly visual example of how not to handle a popular transition).  Will the eager, victorious rebels and their popular supporters spend time, treasure, and what goodwill they’ve presently amassed in an effort to track down and punish those who supported (or who they suspect to have been supporters of) the previous regime, or will they exercise judicious restraint in the aftermath of their success, offering second chances to those who had been on the wrong side of the civil war, and providing due process to those who held out?  Additionally, what other scores will be seen as ripe for settling once the common enemy has been completely eliminated?


This underscores the need to create institutions equipped to handle grievances and other legal matters – just one of countless basic state apparati and services which will have to be rebuilt or, more frequently, constructed from scratch in the wake of a government that existed solely for the benefit of the dictator and those in his circle.  This could make those who served in the previous regime all the more valuable to the new Libya, as they may be some of the only people in the country with significant relevant experience with management and administrative affairs.

Additionally, including those formerly associated with Qaddafi’s regime could decrease the risk of an armed insurgency conducted by those who are clinging either to their support for the vanquished dictator, or to the belief that their fight against the new regime is literally a fight for their lives.  Though the relative ease with which Tripoli appears to have fallen suggests that Qaddafi’s base of support was much smaller than previously thought [Note: Fighting has since picked back up in Tripoli, which suggests that Qaddafi’s remaining loyalists are choosing to fight rather than to vanish into society only to fight again another day, which is potentially a positive development] – and therefore that the risk of a meaningful insurgency by Qaddafi loyalists relatively low – a willingness on the part of the new government to include those who were a part of the previous regime, including those who were a part of Qaddafi’s army, is likely preferable to the Iraq-style “de-Ba’athification” that may be more appealing to those who are finishing a five-month fight against the regime and its erstwhile enforcers.

The system of government which follows Qaddafi’s autocratic regime will obviously bear watching.  As noted above, the rebel coalition used the months of combat and stalemate to lay the groundwork for this moment: to date, the TNC claims to have done everything from drafting a constitution that places significant stock in the rule of law to planning for the transition of power from Qaddafi’s regime to the new coalition (and the restoring of order that would necessarily accompany that transition).  With the removal of the common enemy (now that Qaddafi has been deposed, and ultimately once he is found and captured), will the unity that bound together a rebel coalition consisting of former regime officials, Islamists, and members of various disparate tribes hold (allowing for differences to be worked out diplomatically and parliamentarily, to coin a term), or will violence fracture and fragment those who fought together to remove their longtime oppressor?  Additionally, what role will the Islamist faction of this coalition play, and what power will its members wield?  There have already been concerns raised about the role of Sharia law in the TNC’s draft constitution, though very little substantiation for those concerns has actually been presented to date; further, this column by jihadi expert Will McCants is very worth reading when considering the political and parliamentary savvy of the Islamists who are successfully riding the wave of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, and how that may factor into the coming Libyan government.  Another question – of many – will be how representatives of areas that were under regime control to the very last are incorporated into the Transition Council’s coalition government, and what input they have into the proposed constitution and other documents and institutions that are established in the wake of Qaddafi’s departure.


There are many, many more questions to be answered going forward, from the present handling of the security situation in Tripoli, to the humanitarian situation across the country, to whether or not a “stabilization” force is required or requested (or whether such a force turns out, in hindsight, to have been necessary), and on and on.  In brief, we should hold out hope for a Libyan move in a positive direction, while also being mindful of the pitfalls that threaten a state and its peoples as they attempt to emerge from the ashes of what will hopefully come to be seen as a past that was far worse  than that which followed it.


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