Libya’s Unfolding Questions

Libya’s Unfolding Questions

Amidst the many uncertainties about Libya’s future post-Qaddafi, at least two things can be said. First, the Middle East and the world will be better off with the Qaddafi regime out of power. And second, virtually everyone was wrong in some way and at some point about the Libya operation. This includes the early naysayers who warned that Qaddafi would not be defeated, or that the war would result in a stalemate and divided Libya, or would be a folly of prohibitive costs. Yet also wrong were President Barack Obama’s promises that the war would take "weeks, not months," or that it was merely a limited humanitarian intervention to protect civilians and not a regime change operation, or that it was not even a "war" at all.

Part of the problem besetting the early Libya debates, as I wrote earlier in this article for the German Marshall Fund, came from a facile use of history in which various analogies — whether Rwanda and Bosnia, or Iraq and Somalia — were wielded as polemics in dire warnings that Libya would be the "next [fill in the blank]." In fact, Libya was none of those, but rather its own unique circumstance that soon enough will become an analogy of its own for future foreign policy debates.

This in turn points to the problem with some of the early, breathless pronouncements in the wake of Qaddafi’s defeat that Libya amounts to a "new way to wage war" or a vindication of "leading from behind." As my Foreign Policy colleagues such as Dan Drezner, Peter Feaver, and Kori Schake have pointed out from various angles, this amounts to sound-bite triumphalism and overlooks the unique aspects of the Libya operation as well the remaining hard tasks.

The Obama administration still deserves commendation for the role it played in helping topple Qaddafi. Even if dilatory, President Obama made the right call in deciding to intervene, and his team showed fortitude in seeing the operation through to the Qaddafi regime’s demise, while managing the complexities of coalition warfare. The administration knows well the challenges that lie ahead in finishing the war, winning the peace, and helping reconstruct a stable and free Libya.

Three challenges in particular stand out:

1. NATO’s inadequacies. While the operation eventually succeeded, it does not speak well of NATO’s political and operational health. NATO’s largest member state not named "America" (Germany), didn’t even participate, and the leading members who did — France and Britain — found themselves exhausting their munitions and stretching their militaries thin in trying to topple a two-bit North African dictator whose own people were in open revolt. All while announcing even further reductions in their defense budgets. As former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker points out, the operation should prompt hard introspection more than champagne toasts at NATO headquarters.

2. Post-conflict reconstruction. Countless gallons of pundit ink have already been spilled recounting the "lessons" of recent and ongoing episodes such as Iraq and Afghanistan for post-conflict reconstruction. No doubt the Obama administration has taken these into account, and one silver lining to the prolonged Libya conflict may have been the additional time to do post-conflict planning, which I trust the administration has availed itself of. More interesting is the larger strategic question, which is: Does the United States have a national interest in helping build a stable, peaceful, and free Libya? As my Strauss Center colleague Jeremi Suri describes in his excellent new book on the history of American nation-building interventions, the United States has long been committed to maintaining an international system comprised of functioning nation-states. The competence and consequences of our various interventions form a mixed record, but the fact remains that promoting a stable international order of nation-states is a core American interest. Libya offers an opportunity to put the lessons of past efforts into practice.

3. A new regional strategy. Libya’s significance lies not only in the removal of a vile dictator and the prospects of a better future for the Libyan people, but also for its regional ramifications, especially the uncertain trajectory of the Arab Spring. A Qaddafi victory would almost certainly have forestalled the Arab Spring; whether a post-Qaddafi Libya heralds enduring region-wide consequences is hopeful but not foreordained. And as I have written previously, the administration still faces challenging questions in its efforts to develop a new American strategy for the region. Such as: What type of regional order will best constrain Iran’s hegemonic intentions? How can a free Syria be created, and play a positive regional role? What place will the strategic-yet-neglected Iraq have in the emerging Middle East? How can Saudi Arabia be encouraged to reform while remaining a key American partner? How can the regional tumult induce Turkey to re-align itself with American interests? Will the emerging assertiveness by Gulf states such as Qatar and UAE be channeled in positive directions?

The Arab Spring further hastened the erosion of the old regional order; it will take shrewd, principled, and creative diplomacy to help craft a new one.