Terms of Engagement

Is Libya Beyond Repair?

Not quite. But the question is whether anyone really wants to help. 


The news from Libya isn’t just bad — it’s farcical. The spokesman for the Ministry of Martyrs and Missing People denied reports that the minister had escaped an assassination attempt; his car was "merely struck by a stray bullet during a local gunfight." Oil exports dropped to less than 10 percent of capacity as protestors blocked oil fields and refused to negotiate. Gunmen stole $55 million from an armored truck heading for a Libyan bank. And that’s just this week. On Oct. 10, the prime minister was kidnapped by one militia, and released by another.

A decade ago, Arab experts and scholars of democracy warned President George W. Bush that his plans to bring democracy to the Arab world would fail, both because the region would resist American influence and because it lacked the institutions and the habits of behavior upon which democracy could be built. The debacle of Iraq proved that they were right about the first problem; the Arab Spring, paradoxically, seems to be proving the second point. In places where citizens have risen up on their own to overthrow a dictator — Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya — the vacuum of power has been filled mostly by chaos. It’s no wonder that in a speech to the U.N. in which he laid out his priorities for the Middle East, President Barack Obama said virtually nothing about democracy.

Libya is carrying out a very peculiar, and right now very unhappy, experiment in political change. The 42-year-old reign of Muammar al-Qaddafi was so utterly personal that when he fell from power, everything fell with him. Libya was left with no governing institutions at all. It is, as the authors of a recent article in The Journal of Democracy observe, almost impossible to build a democracy and a government at the same time, since new leaders depend on institutions to deliver the benefits which convince citizens that democracy is worth having. What’s more, they write, Qaddafi’s revolutionary regime taught Libyans to trust no one beyond their own extended family, thus sowing a bone-deep distrust of government — which helps explain why the country’s 300 militias have refused to disarm, and why workers in the oil sector prefer blackmail to negotiations.

Libya ought to have a decent future: With just 5.5 million people and vast oil reserves, the country has the GDP per capita of Turkey; there are few sectarian divides; and the international community, which gave the rebellion military and political support, is eager to help make the country work. And yet the country is locked in a vicious cycle. The government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has precious little legitimacy because militias refuse to disarm and continue to act as they wish. Meanwhile, the government’s fecklessness in turn persuades Libyans that they can only get what they want at the barrel of a gun. Insecurity leads to weak legitimacy leads to insecurity. Unless Libya can break the cycle, that future will remain a tormenting dream.

But will it? Everyone I have spoken to in recent days was, remarkably, ever so slightly optimistic. Libya seems to keep approaching a brink and then backing off. The Zeidan kidnapping ended peacefully; rumbles between militias rarely lead to large numbers of killings. Libyans seem genuinely afraid of jeopardizing their own revolution — something which can hardly be said, for example, of Egyptians, who cheered the army as it overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government.

But something has to happen soon. Libya’s government has money, but no ability to spend it. The General National Congress, a constitutional assembly which has neither made advances on the constitution nor advanced legislation, mostly gets in the way of Zeidan’s initiatives. Central ministries are helpless. Ben Fishman, who recently stepped down as the Libya specialist on Obama’s National Security Council, points out that the prime minister could avoid those constraints by spending money through municipal councils, perhaps to help create jobs for young people who now view a gun as their only asset — and thus to demonstrate that the government matters.

Libya also desperately needs some sort of process of national reconciliation, such as Yemen is now holding, in order to reach agreement on fundamental questions, such as the degree of autonomy which the country’s three regions will enjoy. Zeidan has called for such a dialogue, but since every political faction in the country insists on sponsoring the talks, nothing has happened. Dysfunction thus breeds dysfunction. And yet the only way to break the vicious cycle is to increase the legitimacy of the government, through spending programs, and to make the new Libya inclusive, as the old one was not.

Libyans need to learn everything — how to make a budget, run a ministry, create a national military. But in the aftermath of the revolution, Libyan officials proudly refused Western offers of help; they wanted stuff, not training. Zeidan now understands how bad the situation is; at the last G-8 meeting, he asked Western states to train a national army of 8,000-10,000 troops. This, too, is very late; had training begun in 2011, Libya might not be at the mercy of militias. A senior Obama administration official said to me that past efforts had been thwarted by the haplessness of the Libyan government: "They couldn’t get the right signature on the letter required by our laws." Or they couldn’t cut a check.

In any case, the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last September pushed almost all assistance efforts to the side. A program to install advisors in the Ministry of Defense was, this official says, "paused." Now the effort is being revived. Italy, Britain, and the United States have agreed to start training the national army. (The U.S. effort will take place in Bulgaria and is set to begin this spring.) By this summer, Libya may have a thousand or so soldiers under arms, which would allow the state to begin challenging the militias; this, too, could help break the vicious cycle. Of course, Libya has to survive until then, which is no sure thing.

Libya does not, however, prove that democracy in the Arab world is doomed. Of course it’s preferable for democratic habits and institutions to grow organically over time, or for autocrats to hand off power in "pacted transitions." But most autocrats won’t cooperate, and most people won’t wait. And so Libyans are now caught between building a country and holding it hostage. It’s a harrowing process, but it has also forced Libyans to devise their own rough-and-ready forms of compromise.

Nor does Libya demonstrate that international actors can’t do anything to shape better outcomes. Rather, it shows that they have to tread very carefully. Outsiders can do very little to help Libyans — or Yemenis or Tunisians or Egyptians — learn the habits of compromise which make political reconciliation possible. They are going to have to have their own fights, and make their own mistakes. "There is no solution other than to go muddling on through," says Ian Martin, the former U.N. representative in Libya. Martin cautions that "a more assertive role by the international community will go badly" thanks to Libyan resistance. The U.N., he suggests, must stand between outside states and Libya. That may well be right.

But Libya cannot build a state on its own. And it cannot solve the security dilemma without significant outside help. The good news is that Libya does not need what the United States will not offer — money. What it does need is training in subjects that the United States knows a lot about. Whether Washington can or will help Libyans learn these democratic lessons is another question. We are acutely aware these days of what we cannot do; after Iraq, such a chastening was inevitable, and necessary. And yet we can do some things. We can help the Libyans help themselves. And they may wind up feeling very grateful that we have done so.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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