With Libya’s rebels taking much of Tripoli, the Qaddafi regime has all but collapsed. Muammar Qaddafi has had his proverbial boot on the face of the Libyan people for four decades and is responsible for the murder of nearly 200 Americans. The end of his government will be a kind of rough, belated justice for his crimes. He never truly accepted the norms of the international system and always would have been a threat to return to terrorism.
Although Qaddafi’s rule seems on the verge of its end, it’s probably not the end of the war. Even now there’s fighting in Tripoli. Remnants of Qaddafi’s forces and pro-Qaddafi tribes could well wage an insurgency once out of power. It’s possible that the rebels may fracture and fight one another. In Iraq we saw the dangerous vacuum that can develop in a tribal country after its government and security forces are destroyed and in Libya, we don’t have tens of thousands of troops on the ground.
The rebels wouldn’t have advanced to Tripoli without our support in the air and — according to press reports of allied special forces guiding the final offensive — on the ground. But the Obama administration’s experiment in leading from behind wasn’t a happy one. It delayed the rebel victory, sowed distrust within NATO, and likely led to more deaths and suffering than if we had prosecuted the war vigorously from the beginning. Usually, the longer a civil conflict goes on, the harder it is to put the pieces back together again.
Post-Qaddafi Libya will have formidable challenges and we will — and should — have only a limited role in navigating them. We have an interest in the establishment of order on a decent political basis in Libya, but not nearly enough to deploy ground troops. Libya should become an occasion for the exercise of soft power. We should have an active embassy and offer the transitional national council advice on how to forge a new government (it’s particularly important that it disarms the militias, if it can). We should establish intelligence links with the new authorities and offer military aid. We should be willing to help them institute a new constitution, build political parties, and rewrite its school curriculum. But we should resist the temptation to pour massive amounts of foreign aid into a country that doesn’t need it given its oil wealth.
We should also be willing to step back — lead from behind, if you will — and let the Europeans take a large share of the responsibility for a post-Qaddafi Libya. It is France and Italy that are across the Mediterranean from Libya and they have much more of a stake in its success than we do. A significant NATO military action can’t work without the U.S. taking a leading role, but the post-combat phase is different. The Europeans wanted this war; they can work to clean up in its aftermath.
We should have realistic expectations for what comes next. The transitional national council is talking a good game about its vision for a democratic, pluralist future in Libya. We hope that is truly its intention and it musters the wherewithal to make it happen. At the very least, it will have to contend with forces within its midst who have a darker vision for the country.
It may be possible to do worse than Qaddafi, but it will take some doing. Even if he had stayed in power, he would have ruled a fragmented country wracked by an ongoing insurgency that he wouldn’t have been able to snuff out completely. And he would have ruled — true to his 40 years in power — brutally. Given the accounts we had never entirely settled with him, it was the right thing to give him a good hard shove toward the exits when we had the opportunity. When he goes, it will be good riddance indeed.