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Ready for Day One

Meet the Libyan postwar planners who put the Bush administration's Iraq team to shame.

At this moment of spectacular triumph in Tripoli, even the fiercest advocates of the NATO intervention that helped topple Muammar al-Qaddafi have been sounding notes of trepidation and sober caution; nobody wants to get caught out being unduly optimistic. Advocates of intervention endured a terrible chastening in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's now obvious, if it wasn't before, that in post-conflict situations, things are much likelier to go wrong than right. And Libya is arguably more fraught than any of its recent predecessors.

Allow me, in what I'm sure is a spirit of a priori hopefulness, to offer some tiny grounds for optimism. For the last several months, I have been following the deliberations of the Tripoli Task Force. This body was established in April by the National Transitional Council (NTC), the rebel government based in Benghazi, in order to plan for the post-Qaddafi transition. One of the peculiar advantages of the military stalemate that lasted until this past weekend is that it gave the task force ample time to plan for Day One of the new government.

Over time, the group's core members moved from Benghazi to Dubai. By the time the Qaddafi regime fell, about 70 people were engaged fulltime in the task of planning. This group oversaw a network of hundreds of Libyans, mostly professionals, divided into 17 teams responsible for policing, water supply, fuel, schools, and the like. They made a point of studying precedent. According to Sohail Nakhoody, who served as chief of staff to Aref Ali Nayed, a Libyan businessman who headed the task force (and now serves as the new government's ambassador to the United Arab Emirates), "We had in front of us the experience of Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Somalia." Iraq served as a kind of anti-template, especially on questions like how to treat regime elements -- i.e., no "de-Baathification."

Let me pause for a moment to recall the absurdity of the George W. Bush administration's own planning process for Day One of a post-Saddam Iraq. Back in the summer of 2002, the U.S. State Department established the Future of Iraq Project, a study exercise that brought Iraqi exiles together with American academic experts and government officials. But once Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld persuaded Bush to transfer control of postwar Iraq to the Defense Department, the entire effort was scrapped. In The Assassins' Gate, journalist George Packer describes meeting an Iraqi-American lawyer in Baghdad desperately trying to interest the new authorities in the State Department's 250-page report on transitional justice, and finding no takers. The planning process was transferred to a group of retired military officers heading something called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), whose very name denoted the strict limits of its mandate. Security was outside ORHA's mandate; so were politics and governance. Those things were supposed to take care of themselves. As we know now, they didn't.

The Tripoli Task Force is staffed by Libyans, with a Libyan sense of reality. The goal, says Nakhoody, is to "secure the conditions for normal life and for democratic processes to happen." In recent weeks, the planning was expanded in order to produce a post-conflict plan for the whole country. Nakhoody says that task force members considered a series of disaster scenarios, especially after Russian diplomats passed along information that Qaddafi planned to devastate Tripoli. Fire brigades were organized, and a three-to-four-month supply of oil was stored in tankers in secure staging areas. These may still, of course, prove necessary. Nakhoody says that in recent days, task force members forged a "unified military command structure" among police brigades. He concedes, however, that it's not clear to what extent police commanders in Tripoli continued to fight alongside Qaddafi's troops and, thus, to what extent their loyalty can be counted on.

How real is all this? Nayed, whom I reached just as he was boarding a flight from Tunis to Tripoli, says that "stabilization teams are already on the ground" in Tripoli and elsewhere and have already managed to increase the supply of electricity and water, partially restore Internet service, and use text messaging to communicate with citizens, including pleas to avoid revenge killing. "Things are on the mend," he says confidently. I asked a senior U.S. official deeply involved with Libya policy whether he thought this was so, and he said, "I'm getting a sense that some of the plan is being executed; I can't tell you what [the] percentage is."

The failure to deliver security and services in Baghdad doomed the American effort there. Even modest success in Tripoli and elsewhere would do a great deal to bolster the legitimacy of the NTC, which, according to the terms of a draft constitution, is to serve until a permanent constitution can be written and approved by referendum, and a new government elected, 15 to 20 months from today. Nayed says that what the new government needs from the West is money to pay salaries, purchase medicine and supplies, and restore the prostrate economy. NTC officials say that they do not want a peacekeeping force, whether from the United Nations or elsewhere, and insist that they can master the security situation on their own. That may prove naive. Qaddafi and his sons are still at large and may fight a rear-guard battle, as Saddam did. What's more, if rival forces refuse to put down their guns or if the ragtag militias prove unable to secure Qaddafi's weapons depots, the new regime may have to call on an outside force.

But the most important lesson of Baghdad is: It's the politics, stupid. A government that is not seen as legitimate will not be able to establish security. And this raises the most fundamental question: How can the Benghazi-based and European-backed NTC persuade Berbers, Islamists, southern tribesmen, and Qaddafi loyalists from the west that it is the government of all Libyans? After all, the very idea of "legitimate government" is foreign to Libya. The U.S. official I spoke to told me the obligation to be inclusive had been "taken seriously" by the NTC and gave the body credit for incorporating elements from Misrata and other major coastal cities, as well as from the mountain regions -- though not, as far as he could tell, from the remote south. David Rolfes, an official with the National Democratic Institute and a veteran of post-conflict settings in the Balkans and elsewhere, says that when he first traveled to Benghazi in April he was deeply skeptical about the rebels' political leadership, but that he wound up feeling "amazingly impressed at how they conducted themselves" and has only felt more so over time.

The political leaders say the right things; but, like the Tripoli Task Force, they've operated in a vacuum until now. No one can confidently predict what will happen in the vortex of post-Qaddafi Libya. Another lesson from Iraq is: Dictators poison their countries. They work their way into people's most intimate selves, into the ability to trust, to accept setbacks without violence, to be patient. Qaddafi spent 42 years playing Libyans against one another. And so even if, miraculously, everything goes according to plan, Libya will be a chaotic mess, and at times the Libyan people will wonder whether all the terrible bloodshed was worth it. Many Iraqis, after all, learned that life without Saddam could be even more terrifying than life with him.

I trust that I have now inoculated myself sufficiently against the charge of naive optimism. And so I can allow myself to say that the Libyan uprising has at times felt as deeply moving, as morally powerful, as the Spanish Civil War. But in this case, the heroes won.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

A Revolution, with Qualifications

What the naysayers got right about the Arab Spring.

Over the last several months, there has been very little good news from the Arab world, and a lot of very bad news: bloody stalemate in Libya, Yemen, and Syria; ruthless repression in Bahrain; ongoing military rule in Egypt; growing restlessness and frustration in Tunisia. The waning of the Arab Spring has been deeply disheartening to both democratic activists in the Middle East and their enthusiasts abroad -- i.e., folks like me. It has, however, offered a gratifying sense of vindication to the stern realists who always viewed the whole thing as a mass delusion. I'm thinking of you, George Friedman.

Friedman is the armchair Metternich of Stratfor, a "global intelligence" firm whose highly informed analyses of world events -- often by former intelligence officials -- have been arriving, uninvited but very welcome, in my e-mail inbox for the last few years. Friedman -- sorry, "Dr. George Friedman" -- is Stratfor's founder and CEO, an international affairs theorist of the old school who views geopolitics as the clash of state interests. The good doctor is thoroughly immune to the American habit of falling in love with democratic movements abroad. In the most recent installment of his "Geopolitical Weekly," Friedman dismisses the idea that the Arab world is now experiencing a "revolution." Elsewhere he has written, "There is no Arab spring, just some demonstrations accompanied by slaughter and extraordinarily vacuous observers."

Hear him out. A minimal requirement for a revolution is the upending of an existing regime -- and, as Friedman points out, even in countries like Egypt where the ruler has been forced from office, the military regime remains firmly in power. (His case is weaker in Tunisia.) Compare the situation to the genuine revolution that toppled one regime after another in the former Communist bloc in 1989. There, entire populations overwhelmed despised governments. Much the same happened in Iran in 1979. The Arab world, by contrast, has seen street demonstrations, lead by the young and the well-educated. "The most interesting thing in Egypt," Friedman has written, "is not who demonstrated, but the vast majority who did not." These limited demonstrations succeeded only in persuading the military to get rid of President Hosni Mubarak. Elsewhere, the mass movements have produced stand-offs rather than victories.

Friedman is right that Arab regimes have had far more staying power than democracy advocates in the West naively imagined. Libya is the example par excellence: The Western narrative was that once NATO openly sided with the rebels, the worm-eaten Qaddafi regime would collapse, even if Qaddafi and a few loyalists would fight on to the bitter end. As the bombing continued week after week, some people -- me, for example -- sagely noted that the aerial assault on Kosovo took 76 days to bring Serbia to its knees. About double that time has passed, and only now does Qaddafi's grip on Tripoli appear to have seriously weakened. The Arab Spring has stalled because key sectors -- tribes in Libya and Yemen, business elites and ethnic minorities in Syria, the upper ranks of the military in Egypt -- have either stuck with the regime or stayed on the sidelines.

So 2011 is not 1989. What is it then? A flash in the pan? "The key principle that appears to be driving the risings," Friedman wrote in February shortly after Mubarak's fall, "is a feeling" that regimes "enriched themselves beyond what good taste permitted." This is like saying that Marie Antoinette's shepherdess parties provoked the French Revolution. But Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, did not set himself on fire because President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali ran a kleptocracy, but because that kleptocracy had destroyed his dignity and reduced his prospects to nothing -- which is more or less why the French stormed the Bastille. Unarmed citizens are braving bullets in Syria not because they feel that President Bashar al-Assad is unseemly, but because they view him as cruel and illegitimate. And while Arab citizens hate their corrupt and contemptuous leaders, they have also stopped accepting the autocratic rules which for so long they took for granted. This force will not be put back in a bottle.

The Arab Spring is, in fact, some kind of revolution; it seems niggling to withhold the term. But what kind? As Friedman notes, some revolutions, like the 1848 uprisings in Europe, do ultimately lead to a liberal transformation, even if regimes weather the first storm of protest. That would be the hopeful precedent. Others, like 1979 in Iran, produce a reactionary transformation. So if you accept the premise that, despite all the frustration and the reversals, something very large is happening in the Middle East which will ultimately lead to a different political order, the second-order question is: What will that order look like? Friedman gloomily concludes that "the places where the risings have the most support are the places that will be least democratic" -- presumably Yemen or Libya -- "while the places where there is the most democratic focus," such as Egypt, "have the weakest risings."

Of course, one of the most fundamental differences between Europe in 1989 and the Middle East today is that the former had deep experience of liberal rule and liberal political principles, and the latter has known little beyond autocracy. The tribalism, ethnic fragmentation, and low levels of development that kept the Arab world a democracy-free zone until now also make it unlikely that the old order will soon be supplanted by liberal democracy. Tunisia is not Poland.

But 1989 is an unfair standard. The threshold question should be: Will the new regimes be more liberal, more democratic, more accountable, and less grossly self-aggrandizing than the ones they replace? And the answer is: they could hardly fail to be. To be sure, they could fail either if states descend into chaos or if Islamist extremists gain the upper hand. Both scenarios have been hyped by Arab rulers, who depict themselves as the only bulwark against anarchy or fundamentalism. One could imagine the former happening in Yemen or Libya, and the latter perhaps in Syria. But they are hardly the likeliest outcome. Even Friedman, when he's not lashing out at vacuous observers, acknowledges that the Arab Spring is likely to "plant seeds that will germinate in the coming decades"; he expects those seeds to be democratic, but illiberal.

Liberalism does take far longer to evolve than democracy, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his book The Future of Freedom. But democracy of any kind sounds a lot better than the status quo. The Arab Spring is likely to produce better outcomes for Arab peoples. But this brings us to the third-order question: Will these changes, on balance, be positive or negative for the United States and the West?

You don't have to be a cold-blooded realist to believe, as Friedman does, that whatever new regimes come to power will not be sympathetic to the United States. Successive American administrations relied on rulers like Mubarak or King Hussein of Jordan precisely because they could afford to ignore the views of their own people -- which were, and are, deeply anti-American and anti-Israel. To see what democracy is likely to produce one need look no further than Turkey, whose generals were far more pro-American and pro-Western than the current democratic and mildly Islamic regime has proved to be. Already the state press in Egypt has begun to churn out diatribes against America diplomats there. This is almost certain to get worse before it gets better.

There are, I suppose, two reasons to dump cold water on the Arab Spring. The first is that you think the enthusiasm is overblown, and you enjoying taunting the romantic spirit that sees reflections of America and its democratic values in every popular uprising across the globe. Go ahead and jeer; I would only note that even the grumpy and skeptical John Quincy Adams, who famously abjured crusades to destroy foreign "monsters," added that the American people are "well-wishers" to those everywhere who seek freedom.

The second reason is that you believe that while it may be good for them, it's bad for us. But in the long term, that cannot be so. Illegitimate government in the Arab world has been a disaster for the neighborhood, and for the world. Legitimate government provides the only narrative powerful enough to prevail over the appeal of extremism. We have every reason to be well-wishers.

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images