You may recall the last time the United States and its allies used military force to overthrow a hated Arab dictator. The resulting vacuum was quickly filled by anarchic looting, murderous rivalries and, ultimately, civil war. The blitheness of President George W. Bush's administration towards post-war Iraq was quite possibly the most inexcusable blunder in the history of American foreign policy. It's a mistake we wouldn't want to make again. That's why Lisa Anderson, one of the very few American scholarly experts on modern Libya and president of American University in Cairo, recently wrote that "Any military and diplomatic intervention that will bring an end to the Qaddafi regime should be accompanied, from the beginning, by mobilization of the resources for political reconstruction."
That does sound like a good idea. But it's not happening. A senior official in President Barack Obama's administration says that the situation in Libya is "much too fluid," and the identity of the rebel leadership much too uncertain, to permit serious planning about a post-Muammar al-Qaddafi world, should the rebels actually seize power. The White House is, to be fair, a bit preoccupied, what with organizing the no-fly zone, trying to stave off chaos in Yemen and Bahrain, and attempting to assist a soft landing in Egypt and Tunisia. Most of those countries, as this official says, are of greater strategic significance to the United States than Libya is. And there is, of course, the all too real possibility that the military intervention will produce a stalemate rather than a decisive rebel victory, in which case any such planning would be moot.
The good news is that Libya is not Iraq. The country's tribal divisions should not prove as insuperable an obstacle to national unity as Iraq's Shia-Sunni-Kurd divide. And should the rebels somehow overthrow Qaddafi, they will have the legitimacy which comes of winning an insurgency, as the Iraqis placed on the throne by U.S. power did not.
But one of the fundamental lessons of Iraq is that things will be worse than you think. Not only does war unleash all manner of latent enmity and violence, but decades of abusive treatment by a ruthless dictators fuels pathologies that only fully manifest themselves when the lid of control pops off. Pro- and anti-Qaddafi tribes could square off against one another; Qaddafi could unleash the jihadists he once trained to wreak violence both at home and abroad. So you wouldn't want to bet on a happy outcome in Libya -- you'd want to do whatever you could to help deliver one. And it behooves those of us who have argued for the intervention now under way to give serious thought to what form that help should take.
The United States will not be the occupying power in Libya as it was in Iraq, and thus will have far less leverage, and far less responsibility. The Libyans will be calling the shots. But thanks to Qaddafi's malevolently whimsical vision of a nation without a state or state institutions, whoever inherits the country will need an enormous amount of outside help.
Larry Diamond, a Stanford scholar who served with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and was a leading advocate for intervention in Libya, says that the most directly relevant lesson of Iraq -- and of Afghanistan, for that matter -- is "security trumps everything." People won't accept a new political order if they may pay with their lives for doing so. It's impossible to know right now where those threats may come from. But since Libya will have no foreign troops to stop looting or score-settling, the United States or others will have to train Libyan forces in what Diamond calls "democratic policing."