Stephen M. Walt

Avoiding a ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment in Libya

It’s been obvious for awhile now that Muammar al-Qaddafi’s days as Libya’s leader were numbered, and the only question was how many people would be killed before his government finally collapsed. Assuming early reports are right, the good news is that the collapse came without a large-scale battle for Tripoli. Ordinary Libyans were thus spared further ...

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been obvious for awhile now that Muammar al-Qaddafi’s days as Libya’s leader were numbered, and the only question was how many people would be killed before his government finally collapsed. Assuming early reports are right, the good news is that the collapse came without a large-scale battle for Tripoli. Ordinary Libyans were thus spared further bloodshed and destruction, though sporadic fighting is still being reported in various parts of the capital.

I’ve been skeptical of this whole adventure from the beginning, but not because I didn’t think we could get rid of Qaddafi if we tried. Although the war took longer and cost more than the pro-war party expected, the outcome was never in serious doubt. If you’re a rebel group facing a not-very-competent set of government forces, and if you can persuade the world’s strongest military powers to send sophisticated air assets to help your cause, then you can probably get rid of a pesky potentate like Qaddafi. Whether our intervention was necessary or wise, however, depends on how the post-Qaddafi Libya evolves.

The danger is that we will have another "Mission Accomplished" moment, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy, NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen, President Obama, and their various pro-intervention advisors give each other a lot of high-fives, utter solemn words about having vindicated the new "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) doctrine, and then turn to some new set of problems while Libya deteriorates. And as an anonymous "senior American military officer" told the New York Times: "The leaders I’ve talked to do not have a clear understanding how this will all play out."

Neither do any of the rest of us. We can all hope that the worst doesn’t happen and that Libya’s new leaders exhibit Mandela-like wisdom and restraint. Nobody expects perfection, of course; I can live with the "I told you sos" from hawkish liberal interventionists if it all works out reasonably well. But it will be no small task to construct a workable government in Libya, given the dearth of effective institutions and the potential divisions among different social groups. And then there’s all that oil revenue to divide up, which tends to bring out peoples’ worse instincts.

As in Iraq, therefore, ousting a discredited dictator is likely to be the easy part, and the hard part is just beginning. Aren’t you glad the United States and Europe have lots of time and money to devote to rebuilding yet another potential failed state?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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