The new Libya and the U.S.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The killing of Moammar Gadhafi on Oct. 20 and the liberation of Libya have come as a relief to Libyans after almost 42 years of tyranny. With his grandiose claims to leadership of the Arab world and insistence on titles such as "king of kings of Africa," Gadhafi was an easy figure to mock. His outlandish sense of fashion, wild speeches, support for coups across the globe and unorthodox approach to Islam did not exactly impress in most Western or Muslim circles. He was uniquely able to unite the Gulf monarchies, Egypt, Israel and Iran against his bizarre behavior.

His recent relationship to the West has been more complicated. Terrified by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in late 2003 Qaddafi abandoned weapons of mass destruction and ceased supporting terrorism, even paying reparations to families of his European victims. Libya invited international investment and reopened diplomatic relations with Western nations. Even so, the United States should be pleased to see Gadhafi go; his brutality was matched only by his corruption. The question now is: What path will Libyans choose, now that they have freed themselves, with the support of the U.S., NATO and Arab allies?

While Libya has no experience with democracy or civil society, the Libyans do have some advantages. Among these is a small population -- 6.5 million -- with access to the world's ninth-largest oil reserves. Libya would have the highest standard of living in Africa if its petroleum revenue was spent on its people. Another factor is Libya's proximity to Europe and the heavy engagement of European nations -- especially Italy and France -- in its economy. Similarly, cooperation between NATO and the Libyan National Transitional Council and the high percentage of rebel leaders with degrees from American and European universities should be helpful as Libya interacts with the West.

The eight-month insurgency against Gadhafi has been costly in terms of lives, infrastructure and wealth, but it might serve as a uniting event. With the memory of how difficult it was to overthrow the dictator, perhaps Libyans will be more fortified against the challenges they face. The next steps toward a battlefield victory are often clearer than those leading toward a stable society, democracy and the rule of law. Winning quickly can be the worst lesson possible about the challenges of rebuilding after a conflict, as the U.S. learned from its liberation of Iraq.

Why does any of this matter to the United States? The model of intervention followed by the Obama administration -- providing air power, training and intelligence to local forces -- was successful. However, these tactics are less effective against adversaries with strong conventional forces and popular support. In many ways, the administration imitated recent campaigns -- Afghanistan in late 2001 and northern Iraq in 2003 -- which were heavy on air power and special operations forces. In both cases, however, heavy U.S. forces had to follow on to complete the mission, which in Afghanistan has proved nearly intractable. The Obama Doctrine, if it can be called that, is therefore of limited use elsewhere.

One can hope that Libya's first free elections -- yet to be scheduled -- will lead to a coalition of moderate Islamic and secular parties, perhaps similar to those who won Tunisia's recent elections. If the Libyans can remain focused on the future, avoiding the corruption and missteps that have plagued so many resource-rich governments in the world, they have the potential to overcome the lost decades under arguably the most bizarre dictator in the world outside of North Korea. That, indeed, would be a victory worth celebrating.

Dr. Wayne Bowen is a professor and chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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