The question of what comes after
The video images of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s last moments are chilling, hard to shake from the mind many hours after they were first seen. In them, the battered husk of an old man is effectively torn at by a howling mob. The history of the victim, the memory of his many victims, seems remote, abstract. The ...
The video images of Muammar al-Qaddafi's last moments are chilling, hard to shake from the mind many hours after they were first seen. In them, the battered husk of an old man is effectively torn at by a howling mob. The history of the victim, the memory of his many victims, seems remote, abstract. The hoots and cries and shouts of "Allahu akbar" are so frenzied that despite the images on the screen it's hard to think that men were involved in the incident. It's purely animal and the gore and jostled camera angles and the gunfire all are just sub-motifs, part of a moment so fraught with emotion and adrenaline that reason and compassion seemed as doomed as the helpless fallen autocrat at the center.
The video images of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s last moments are chilling, hard to shake from the mind many hours after they were first seen. In them, the battered husk of an old man is effectively torn at by a howling mob. The history of the victim, the memory of his many victims, seems remote, abstract. The hoots and cries and shouts of "Allahu akbar" are so frenzied that despite the images on the screen it’s hard to think that men were involved in the incident. It’s purely animal and the gore and jostled camera angles and the gunfire all are just sub-motifs, part of a moment so fraught with emotion and adrenaline that reason and compassion seemed as doomed as the helpless fallen autocrat at the center.
No one laments Qaddafi’s fall. But witnessing the carnage and fury of that street scene yesterday, it is hard not to harbor serious fears or doubts about what might come next. Surely many revolutions have involved similar scenes and our uplifting histories of the events have only managed to survive in their cleansed form due to the lack of cellphone video from the scene of their liberating mayhem. But while passion is essential to power crowds to confront risk and demand seemingly impossible change, it can be dangerous when it comes to the next stages of political transformation, for those do require precisely the cooler, more humane qualities so absent yesterday.
For these reasons, the cautious views expressed by some analysts in the wake of yesterday’s events, views that warned that it was premature to call the Libya initiative of NATO and the Obama administration (as well as Libya’s rebels) a success, are suffused with considerable wisdom even if some, coming from opponents of President Obama, seemed more oriented toward raining on his parade than actually sensibly setting expectations. Surely, it is not premature to suggest that since it was in U.S. and Western interests to remove Qaddafi, end his dictatorship, and give the people of Libya a chance at democracy and all those things have happened, that thus far operations have achieved their goals, done so at a low cost and done so in a way that was at least, more or less, consistent with the values of the international community.
That said, the international community, having helped ensure that needed changes did take place in Libya, now has a responsibility to both support and, yes, try to influence the changes taking place in that country so that the regime and institutions that emerge from this revolution are representative of the interests of Libya’s people and act in a way that is consistent with international law. To the extent that new leaders are not hostile to and may actually be supportive of the interests of the views of those countries that assisted with the liberation, naturally those countries will be happier with the outcome and, like any actors in any such situation, they have a perfect right to do what they can to foster such support.
Staying constructively and influentially engaged in Libya will be as big a challenge for NATO and the Obama administration as putting together the military efforts of the past few months has been. Coordinated efforts and fair burden sharing will be equally important. Fortunately, Libya has oil reserves that should make its recovery to a large degree self-funding but the nations that fielded military assets will almost undoubtedly have to offer up packages of technical and financial assistance going forward to ensure that the right kind of return on their investments to date.
The challenge of dealing with what comes next — of winning the peace — is not limited, of course to Libya. Certainly, sluggish and murky change in Egypt has left many wondering if that country is not reverting to its old, military-dominated ways and great work must be done, vigilance and pressure and support maintained to ensure both that the democratic spirit of Tahrir Square is maintained and that the outcomes of democratic processes result in strengthened, enduring freedoms and institutionalized tolerance.
And now, today, we have news of effectively all of America’s troops leaving Iraq by the end of this year. To those of us who have felt that the invasion of Iraq was one of the great ghastly errors of U.S. foreign-policy and an abuse of international law, there is a welcome dimension to this development. But we must recognize that in part this final withdrawal reflects a diplomatic failure to get the Iraqis to offer legal conditions conducive to maintaining a small but meaningful presence in that country after the majority of the drawdown was completed. The 150 troops left behind to manage arms sales and related issues are a negligible contingent. Our military influence in that country is coming to an end except to the extent that we determine to supply arms and training and funds to the Iraqis or to the extent we intend to direct resources outside that country back at it.
Which raises the question of what comes next in Iraq. While getting out is worth celebrating, being out creates conditions that we may ultimately deeply lament. Should Iranian influence grow, should violence return, should Iraq once again fester and demand a strongman who is odious to us, we could very easily find this country being a source of tension and unease in the region and all the vast investment we have poured into it being seen as wasted. While this is not a reason to reverse the drawdown, it does create an imperative akin to that in Libya and Egypt…and akin to that which we will soon face in Afghanistan.
We must find a way to work with our allies as effectively and forcefully in peacekeeping and rebuilding situations as we have gradually found for military interventions. While we must be prudent about what we invest in such processes both in terms of economic and political capital, we also have to realize that walking away is the surest way to take qualified, short-term successes and turn them into failures and perhaps even greater problems in the future. We don’t have the out of underwater mortgage holders in the United States of simply exiting and leaving our keys on the front hall table. For both Republicans and Democrats, a shared sense of our national interests and responsibilities demands that we find a way to effectively stay engaged. Lead from behind, be multilateral, focus on providing the things we can best provide, keep our goals limited … in short use all our emerging principles for engaging in conflicts … in this new post-conflict world. But it is important that we see that these are not ends in Libya or in Iraq, they are merely the beginning of new and in many ways equally challenging chapters for our engagement in the region.
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