Libya: Neither Paradise nor Beyond Thunderdome

Since the end of the NATO bombing portion of the Libyan civil war, there’s been a lot of speculation about whether the West acted in the right in intervening in the first place. The thrust of the two main arguments are that either: the United States and its allies prevented a massacre, upheld the Responsibility to Protect, and the future of Libya is a far brighter one than if Qaddafi had been allowed to hold power; or, the entire mission was a mistake from the beginning, one lacking the strategic components necessary to be worth it, and the aftermath is a Libya that is far from the ideal that the former group paints it as. Both groups have solid points, though I myself lean more towards the former. It’s hard to argue, though, with the fact that Libya’s transition to democracy is anything but smooth.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) which first consolidated the revolution against Qaddafi into political power has been less than effective when it comes to actually governing the state. This isn’t all that much of a surprise to me, considering that while several members did formerly serve in the regime, way back when, the Qaddafi government was basically one-man. Any semblance of lasting institutions were completely torn-down over the Colonel’s lengthy rule, and rebuilding those is going to take time, far less time than most outsiders are willing to provide rebuilding states. When one person has controlled all decisions, and changed laws and rules according to his whim, how then do you know how to run a state? And don’t accuse me of paternalism at this point; it’s not that I think the Libyans are incapable of self-rule, just that they don’t have practice.

One of the most frustrating things to see in the aftermath of conflict is an insistence that new governments move faster, seize control of their territory quicker, raise themselves to the standards we have set for them. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that new governments have a responsibility to move as quickly as possible in providing, among other things, security and good governance to their people. Pressure should be kept up on these states, less they think that its acceptable behavior to the international community. But I don’t expect perfection overnight, or for a government to completely rebuild its civil society in six months time. As someone who opposed the War in Iraq at its outset, one of the least convincing arguments I’ve heard about why it was a terrible idea is the current lack of political stability in Iraq, which oddly enough is one of the right’s largest reasons why we shouldn’t have withdrawn our uniformed forces. But I digress.

I’m not an expert in democratization, but I do believe that these things take time. Tripoli fell just shy of six months ago; Qaddafi was killed four months ago. Going by the standards that many seem to arbitrarily set on either completely new political entities like South Sudan or new regimes such as the one in Libya, the United States itself was an abject failure for the first several years of its existence. Soldiers went unpaid and over-armed, the central government wasn’t sure how to enforce its will on new territory, the original system set up to govern was found to be completely unworkable, there were questions on how to handle loyalists who still lived in the new country. The list goes on. Two centuries of practice exist between now and then, leading many to believe that the country sprung forth in its current form.  The basic principles remain the same, so far as state-building goes, and those two-hundred years of practice aren’t easily transferred.

It’s in this light I came across an article in the Washington Post, helpfully posted by Daniel Solomon, describing a new challenge faced by the NTC:

Representatives of about 100 militias from western Libya said Monday they had formed a new federation to prevent infighting and allow them to press the country’s new government for further reform.

The move was a blow to the National Transitional Council, which helped lead the eight-month uprising against longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi that ended with his capture and death in October. The NTC has struggled for months to stamp its authority on the country, and has largely failed to decommission or bring under its control the hundreds of militias that fought in the war.

There is an initial, visceral reaction to this news, one that speaks to many of the fears that go hand-in-hand with the Arab Spring writ large. The fear that for all our best hopes, this will end in a new enemy to the United States. I think that there’s reason behind this reaction, but I do think that there’s also room for cautious optimism. This development could go one of two ways, by my seeing. The first, far preferable way to outside observers, is that the militias in the new Federation accept the results of future elections and continue the development of a political wing to their machinations. Members of this Federation could contest seats in the National Parliament elections this summer against those backed by the NTC. They could then go on to become either a loyal opposition to the members of the NTC, or the leaders of the government in their own right. Or, given the difficulties that the NTC has in unifying command under the Defense Ministry, the Federation could face the same problems and lose control of its groups, furthering violence as they turn on each other. Neither path is a foregone conclusion at this point.

Splits of this nature aren’t inevitable, but they have always been likely, considering that rather than undergoing the Libyan version of de-Baathification, many officers in the National Army are holdovers from the Qaddafi days. What’s needed in Libya is an increase of trust between militias and transparency on behalf of the NTC. Proposals, not laws yet, for how to divide up Libya’s oil revenues should be prepared ahead of the seating of the new Parliament and made public, and NTC meetings should be made more open until national elections in June. Militias should be encouraged to reach out to each other, in information sharing and training exercises, fostered by the Ministry of Defense. I don’t believe that the many disparate militias will cede control automatically; transition time there is needed, too.

None of this is intended to give a free pass to the NTC for its failings and carpet over difficulties inherent in transitioning to a democratic state. The NTC shouldn’t get just a pat on the shoulder and soothing words for its inability to prevent torture in militia hospitals. Nor is it a naive wish and hope that renewed clashes between militias will just go away. With the number of arms floating around the country, from light weapons to MANPADS, and the current lack of opportunity outside of the militias, the now once-weekly clashes in Tripoli are likely to continue. Rather, this is to say that the United States in particular should be working to assist the NTC and this new group in forming a free and prosperous Libya together.  I stress again I’m not an expert on any of these matters; if what I’m saying is misreading the situation or runs counter to facts, correct me. But in my view, instead of panicking and washing our hands of Libya, we should be fostering ties, and lending assistance wherever possible, through the auspices of the State Department or the United Nations, to keep Libya from pulling apart at the seams.

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