Too soon to claim victory in Libya, but not to ask: What now? [The conversation]
It might be too early to claim victory in Libya, with the search for Moammar Kadafi still on in Tripoli, but enough advances have been made to prompt opinionators to ask: What now?
How to finish the mission in Libya
It is for Libya's people to decide Libya's future. But America and the West have earned the right to insist that Tripoli make a commitment to respect international law, safeguard human rights, and shun international terrorism. Only then will the mission in Libya be accomplished.
What to do with Kadafi
The fall of a tyrant -- or of a tyrant's son and heir -- is usually the cause of popular rejoicing followed by public vengeance. They are hung from lampposts (the fate of Mussolini and his mistress) or rushed to kangaroo courts for pre-determined death sentences (see President and Mrs. Ceausescu in Romania). But it is just possible, should Col. Muammar and Saif Gaddafi be taken alive, that we are entering a new and better era in which tyrants and their spawn will instead be dispatched to The Hague for fair trial in an international court for their crimes against humanity.
Libya needs to create a democracy and …
There will be a long-term, herculean task of building democracy in a country that knew only one man and his idiosyncratic ideology for four decades. Libya has no independent courts. It lacks a free media. It has no constitution or separation of powers. The obstacles to building democratic institutions will be huge, and Libyans will need international support.
… law and order and …
The security and judicial system, a wasteland under Gadhafi, should be the first priority, though it is the area probably most in need of deeper, longer-term reform. One can only imagine the endemic nepotism and corruption that have traditionally characterized Libya’s police forces, but they will need to be made adequately operational quickly, probably via a new loyalty oath and some crash training. It is not ideal by any means, but allowing the streets to be policed by militias and various tribal-based groups would be far more dangerous.
… a solid economy
According to the International Monetary Fund, Libya's oil and natural gas industry in 2010 accounted for more than 95% of export earnings and 75% of government receipts. While the restoration of stability and the introduction of political reforms are crucial, Libya's economy will need to be invigorated to ensure longer-term prosperity.
The U.S. should continue to lead from behind
The Libyan revolution needn't end in civil war. At the same time, there is no guarantee that it won't. Either way, our ability to influence the course of events is limited. We can aid the rebels, as we have been doing all along: In fact, they've quietly received not only NATO air support but also French and British military training, as well as weapons and advice from elsewhere in Europe and the Gulf, most notably from Qatar. But we can't fight their war for them, we can't unify them by force, and we can't write their new constitution. On the contrary, if we make ourselves too visible in Libya, either with troops on the ground or too many advisers in dark glasses, we will instantly become another enemy. If we try to create their government for them, we risk making it instantly unpopular.
What we should do instead—to use a much-mocked phrase—is bravely, proudly, and forthrightly "lead from behind." […]
Fortunately for us, leading from behind in Libya is not merely the only option, it's still the best option. This was their revolution, not ours. Now it's poised to become their transition, not ours. We can help and advise. We can point to the experience of others—in Iraq, Chile, Poland—who have also attempted the transition from dictatorship to democracy and who can offer lessons in what to do and what to avoid. We can keep expectations low and promises minimal. After all, we have a lot to learn about the Libyan rebels, their tribal divisions, their politics, and their economics. And we have a lot of ammunition to replace back home.
But we shouldn't praise President Obama
So on one hand, Obama can modestly take credit for the role the U.S. played in Qaddafi's downfall. And yeah, it's great that he's out of power. On the other hand, Obama has violated the Constitution; he willfully broke a law that he believes to be constitutional; he undermined his own professed beliefs about executive power, and made it more likely that future presidents will undermine convictions that he purports to hold; in all this, he undermined the rule of law and the balance of powers as set forth by the framers; and he did it all needlessly, because had he gone to Congress at the beginning and asked for permission to wage war they almost certainly would've granted it.
So I don't think this a quiet victory for Obama.
What not to do next
Some will see in the crumbling of Kadafi's regime a template for action in Syria. That's the wrong lesson. Instead, the apparent success of the Libyan rebels is a reminder that every crisis is unique, and that each calls for the nuanced application of leverage in defense of American values and interests. Force is sometimes justified, but it should only be deployed when other methods have failed, when it can serve a vital end and when it can be effective in securing that result.
A lesson to remember
Their unity and organization are indeed more powerful than NATO's bombs and more effective than the West's sanctions. The lessons of Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia are clear: With unity comes historic opportunity.
Photo: Rebels advance during fighting in Tripoli. Credit: Sergey Ponomarev / Associated Press