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David Rothkopf

This is not the endgame in Libya: Conclusions and implications of the fall of Qaddafi

Libya is not an important country. It’s important to its people and in its region. It’s a symbol and it’s an indicator. But in a geopolitical sense, it belongs to that list of places like North Korea, Cuba, and Afghanistan that only have gained attention over the years as the platforms of dangerous men. Libya ...


Libya is not an important country. It’s important to its people and in its region. It’s a symbol and it’s an indicator. But in a geopolitical sense, it belongs to that list of places like North Korea, Cuba, and Afghanistan that only have gained attention over the years as the platforms of dangerous men. Libya without Qaddafi is unlikely to make headlines for long … unless, yet again, an extremist or an extremist group uses it as a vehicle for their own warped ambitions.

We should not, therefore, be unhappy should Libya ultimately fade from the radar. That would be an encouraging sign. And there are many truly important issues to which we ought to devote our attentions. But we can’t allow ourselves to believe that what is happening in Tripoli is the endgame in that country or allow ourselves the luxury of letting our attention drift away as soon as the celebrations stop.

To understand why, we need only ask what lessons this recent chapter in Libya’s history holds, what conclusions we may draw, and what implications it may have for the world at large.

First, the greatest immediate benefit from the fall of the Qaddafi regime will be the departure of Qaddafi himself, a fundamentally evil man who has been responsible for much suffering, both for his own people and for the victims of the terrorism he supported. Sealing his fate once and for all, securing his inability to again influence world, regional, or national affairs, is a necessary precondition to regarding this chapter as having come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Second, as the situations in Egypt and Tunisia remind us, we should resist the impulse to become too intoxicated with the natural high afforded by the celebrations that come with the end of brutal, autocratic regimes. Just as it has taken longer than many would have liked to bring down Qaddafi, it will be many months or years before we know the character of the regime that will succeed him, and a happy ending to this story is far from being assured.

Third, as a consequence, we must hope that the patience and perspective shown by the international coalition that has supported the efforts of the Libyan rebels is maintained. Just as President Obama, NATO, and regional leaders who have helped orchestrate the campaign that is now culminating in Tripoli deserve credit for methodically pursuing their goals, we must hope that they will be willing to work to ensure that the legitimate advocates of democracy, pluralism, and tolerance among the leaders of the opposition successful take control of the new regime and that they receive what technical support they need. Libya, as the source of 2 percent of the world’s oil, can fund its own recovery if allowed to reintegrate with the global economy. By the same token, the international coalition must remain vigilant that extremists are not able to hijack or pervert the outcome of this revolution.

Fourth, we must hope that this triumph, should it be consolidated, reinvigorates the world’s best hopes for this Arab Spring that has continued on into an Arab Summer in which the promise of positive change endures. That means a redoubled international effort to ensure the Assad regime in Syria is also consigned to the dustbin of history in which we find the Egyptian, Tunisian, and, we trust, the Libyan dictators of the past several decades. It also, just as importantly, means that the international community should provide significant but appropriately conditional support for new governments should they promote open societies. Political success stories in these changing societies will be impossible without concurrent economic successes, the creation of opportunity for the young and those who have been victimized by greedy, corrupt systems that have seen leaders and cronies exploit their people for years.

Fifth, the willingness of the Obama administration to step back and let France and Britain lead the initiative in Libya has been a sign of the strength and wisdom of the U.S. president rather than of weakness. America’s response to the first phases of this crisis was sloppy, and the Obama team’s messages were conflicting to the point of incoherence for weeks. But, Obama has successfully balanced a recognition of the limitations of U.S. military resources and of American political will to get deeply involved in another Middle East war with a desire to remain relevant. He chose — boldly, given the American bias toward control — to actually try to find another path, a multilateral, cooperative approach in which the U.S. could influence outcomes, support our interests, but allow others to play a more central role. In so doing, he presaged what must be a new approach by the United States in world affairs. It was not perfect, not neat, but then again, inventing new approaches seldom is those things.

America is entering a new era in its foreign policy. It will be marked not by the end of U.S. leadership but by a change in U.S. leadership. This will naturally require others to step up, and that in turn will demand real changes not only within national foreign policies but also within institutional structures like those of NATO and the EU that are not yet robust enough for the new roles they must play, not strong enough to swiftly produce coherent policies or decisive collective action. The actions of the Sarkozy and Cameron governments in this instance have been especially helpful — if not without complications and missteps — in moving the Western alliance in that direction.

For the foreseeable future, a primary focus of that evolving alliance and a changing, more constrained, more multilateralist America will be the Middle East, still roiling as it is, still dangerous with calcified, out-of-touch governments, ancient hatreds, and bad actors. As the reflections on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union remind us, revolutions start fast but take decades to reveal their true character.

It is far too early to know whether the events of this year in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, or Damascus and Hama will be seen as an opening to a period of sweeping, constructive changes in the region or whether it will leave us and more importantly the people of these countries frustrated. While the major changes to take place are the responsibility of those people, we must understand that it can’t happen without the effective ongoing involvement of the world’s leading countries. And that’s the fascinating, challenging question that underlies all of what is happening and will happen: How can a changing Western alliance work with a changing regional power structure to produce the enduring political and economic changes the people of the Middle East crave and deserve?

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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