The Baghdad Syndrome

Eight not-so-simple steps to making sure that Libya doesn't repeat Iraq's mistakes.


There are, of course, huge differences between Libya and Iraq in politics, culture, and demographics. And the fighting in Libya isn’t even ostensibly over yet, like it was during that brief Iraqi spring of 2003. But some important similarities are clear. Libya remains in the chaos of a leadership void and a continuing civil war. It’s suffering the cumulative societal and physical degradation of decades of corrupt, brutal autocracy and isolation. A hard, likely dangerous, nation-building effort lies ahead in any scenario. But Libyans won’t have to suffer the violence and humiliation of a foreign occupation, and they won’t have their reconstruction dictated by clueless Americans. And they can draw on the fresh memory of Iraq as a cautionary tale.

I was a reporter in Iraq from 2003 to 2009, and I know I’m seeing Libya through the prism of Iraq. Still, as the Libyan fighting continues or enters a period of stalemate, here are some lessons from Iraq offered in the hopes of a less-violent, more stable Libyan construction process:

1. Don’t permit looting in whatever areas are presumed under your control (or controlled by different factions). This obvious concept was somehow overlooked in Iraq. "Freedom’s untidy," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said as Iraqi mobs went unhindered in dismantling the country’s government offices, schools, oil fields, medical clinics, and police stations. Iraqi leaders weren’t equipped or willing to spend the political capital to rein in looters. The rampage shocked law-abiding Iraqis and undermined confidence in the new order. It took years and billions of dollars to recover.

2. Don’t disband the old military if the troops are willing to lay down arms or switch sides. You can appoint new leaders. You can confine suspect units to barracks, investigate everyone, jail some or many. But don’t send them all off indiscriminately (and armed). And even if the fighting stops, don’t disband your rebel army either, because it can just as easily stir up trouble.

In fact, take that money you have coming and pay your victorious fighters well to stand around deterring looters, guarding your international borders, and receiving training. Cash in people’s pockets will take some of the pressure off the leadership in settling competing claims on behalf of their tribal or regional constituents.

3. Just say no to al Qaeda. Hard-core Islamist militants will come from among you or the outside, promising money and gunmen to protect you from whatever threat you think you face. But even the sympathetic tribesmen of Iraq’s Anbar province eventually decided the local branch of al Qaeda was more trouble than it was worth (unless you want to be bossed around, give up smoking and drinking, pay protection money, and see your daughters forcibly married off as war spoils to illiterate foreign misfits). Some reports have suggested that radical Islamists were among those fighting Qaddafi’s forces; watch them closely and demand that they obey the writ of your nascent state.

4. Don’t restrict information. Free speech was one of the semi-bright lights in Iraq, though it has come under more threat as time passes. There were hundreds of new magazines, newspapers, websites, and radio stations. Many were party organs, but a few weren’t. After years of censorship, your people will have trouble telling rumor from fact, but they’ll learn faster by having multiple sources to evaluate. Resist the urge to close down a newspaper for writing lies or incitement (and don’t kill their reporters). The U.S. closure of a Sadrist newspaper provided a handy pretext for an uprising in 2004. If nothing else, speech is a great relief valve. It’ll also win you points with the international community.

5. Don’t tolerate corruption and abuse, even in your divided fiefdoms. Protecting your corrupt allies or sanctioning torture and coercion will eventually weaken you — unless you want to trend once again toward autocracy (see: Nouri al-Maliki). Invite international experts to help audit and investigate corrupt figures in the new regime, the higher and more prominent the better. You can give even these people a route to eventual rehabilitation, but don’t let them get away with the money or soon everyone will be doing it.

6. Don’t tolerate militias. At last count, the Libyan rebels had more than three dozen brigades fighting against Qaddafi, with varying degrees of autonomy. Shutting them down will have to wait for the fighting to stop, but everyone should eventually be under a transparent chain of command. Like in Iraq, you’ll still have rogue police or army units, and you might need foreign or NATO intelligence to sort this out (i.e., listening to communications and providing aerial surveillance). Also, require that private security details, whether for foreign embassies, contractors, or local politicians, follow local laws. But give them a real regulatory process that they can follow efficiently with formal fee structures — this can pay for itself. Call it the Blackwater Rule if you need to remind people what it’s for.

7. Don’t sell your country for a quick payoff. Iraqis were wise in their hesitation to privatize companies or auction off oil fields, and U.S. officials eventually acknowledged that. (Most of the companies weren’t efficient enough to compete privately, anyway.) Let your people know that they won’t always be able to rely on the government jobs and subsidies they get now, but don’t add economic shock to their current insecurity. Require that outsiders — the International Monetary Fund and others — show your people tangible benefits in return for reform. When Iraq removed subsidies on fuel, it just increased the public’s frustration and offered little visible upside except on government ledgers.

8. Stop fighting. I know — if you could you would, maybe.

But look at Iraq. In eight years, al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s old loyalists have caused a lot of misery and chaos, but they couldn’t topple a new government backed by the international community. As for the radical Shiites, they probably just made things worse for their community by killing or scaring off Sunni technocrats. That is, they could have had almost as much power and had better functioning institutions, a fact that some of them are now realizing.

Instead, fighting and lawlessness allowed lots of local and factional figures to build power bases through neighborhood ethnic cleansing or corrupt enterprises. In Iraq today, frequent violence still imperils the innocent, millions have fled, and there’s not nearly enough electricity or oil flowing to fuel the prosperity Iraqis should have enjoyed.

All of this is, of course, easier said than done. Libya’s new leaders are saying all the right things, but they are going to face pressure from their supporters who want revenge, war spoils, and power. In the end, the challenge will be much like the one still taking place in bloody slow motion in Iraq: persuading people that by each of them agreeing to a little less, they can all have a lot more.

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