Few other Middle East countries have the potential of Libya. The country is vast, the population small. One irony of the brutal Qaddafi regime is that its sheer incompetence and record of terror translated into an insidiously reduced oil and gas export capacity, ensuring that its untapped reserves are now larger than ever — and at a time of record world prices.
It has ideal weather and a long Mediterranean coastline, and for 500 years or so was part of the Roman world and considered Western. It could easily become a tourist getaway an hour or two from Europe’s main airports. Its Roman antiquities at Leptis Magna and Sabratha are nearly unmatched in the Mediterranean, and — once again, paradox abounds — the Qaddafi regime’s anti-Western policies and plain incompetence meant that tourism and ongoing archaeological investigation, until very recently, were dormant. That neglect ensured that the sites were more or less left alone, and in some cases the sands have overtaken the sites and protected them from traffic or crackpot reconstruction. In all, there is a decades-old aura of romance and intrigue about these now mostly unknown and rarely visited places.
The problem, of course, is after 42 years of Qaddafi milking the country, the infrastructure is either nonexistent or shoddy even by old Soviet standards. Two generations of Libyans have grown up under a government of North Korea–like insanity. Those with the expertise to rebuild the country, both politically and technologically, are long-time exiles or returned only recently, under Qaddafi’s weird post-Iraq liberalization policies.
The U.S. is in no mood to follow up our military intervention with a postbellum reconstruction program, and we have no idea which factions among the rebels will assume power, or even the nature of the various special interests. So, until the dust settles, no one quite knows whether this is 1917 Russia, 1979 Iran, 2003 Iraq, or 2011 Egypt and Tunisia, or a little of everything. Everyone simply hopes that whatever emerges will be better than Qaddafi — and being worse would be difficult, though not impossible in that part of the world. We in the West imagine what a rich, civilized, and important asset Libya could be to the world and the West in particular; in much the same way, others see its oil and location as a prize for their very different, very anti-Western agenda.