Voice

Baby Steps

With the slow but steady consolidation of militias and the success of moderate democratic parties, despite all odds, it seems like Libya might be on the right path.

I get a lot of news about Libya from the Libya Herald, a plucky English-language newspaper which started up earlier this year. One of my favorite leads, from the midst of the elections last week, read, "Though deploring the abduction of Libya's Olympic committee president, the British foreign secretary William Hague has hailed the progress that Libya has made since the revolution as ‘inspiring.'"

That's Libya in a nutshell: Baby steps towards democracy against a backdrop of vigilante justice. Both those who advocated the NATO bombing campaign which led to the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and those who opposed it, can now find grounds for vindication. It's early days, and no one can foretell Libya's future. But the surprisingly solid victory last week of a coalition led by Mahmoud Jibril, a moderate, American-educated businessman, has been enthralling for Libyans, and deeply encouraging to the anxious Westerners who have been monitoring the process.

The common refrain among critics of the NATO campaign was, "We don't know who they are." Islamists figured prominently in the Libyan militias; Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, led rebel forces in Tripoli. But now we do know who they are. Jibril's National Forces Alliance roundly defeated the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party, taking almost six times as many votes, for example, in Benghazi, a Brotherhood stronghold. Belhaj's al-Watan Party was routed in Tripoli. (The outcome may change as independent candidates choose to affiliate themselves with various parties.)

There are many explanations for the Islamists' poor performance. The National Democratic Institute, a democracy promotion group, conducted focus groups in Libya this spring in which, according to Carlo Binda, the country director, "people almost universally said that anyone using Islam as a political device can't be trusted" -- because all Libyans profess Islam. Diederick Vandewalle, a Libya scholar who has been in the country during the elections, says that "the last thing anyone wants is a powerful leader who is going to be  a reincarnation of Qaddafi." Libyans, that is, have had it with ideology. After 42 years of planned chaos, Libyans just want a normal country.

A secondary fear among critics of the air campaign was that Libya, long held together by authoritarian rule, will break up along the east-west axis that defined the rebellion against Qaddafi. A group called the Cyrenaica Transitional Council (CTC), based in Benghazi, had been demanding autonomy for the east. But after the election, Jibril pointedly praised the federalists as "patriots," and invited them to join the coalition he is seeking to assemble. The CTC's leaders have responded warmly, and have spoken of dissolving their organization. The group may also have noticed that its demonstrations provoked yet larger counter-demonstrations in Benghazi and Tripoli. Libyans, it seems, want to be Libyans.

But if the election constituted a rebuke to Islamists and separatists, it had no such effect on the hundreds of militias which have operated with impunity since they overthrew Qaddafi. In the midst of the balloting, two journalists from the western town of Misrata were foolhardy enough to visit Bani Walid, a southern city where Qaddafi forces made their last stand. They were kidnapped and held for trial. Several hundred members of the feared Misrata militia advanced towards Bani Walid with their heavy artillery in tow. The issue was only resolved when the Misrata forces agreed to give up some Qaddafi loyalists whom they had imprisoned -- which perhaps was the kidnapper's goal.

If, as Max Weber said, a state is defined by its monopoly of violence, Libya is very far from being a state. A recent report by Amnesty International estimates that militias hold about 7,000 prisoners in informal jails. The militias continue to fight one another, to exact revenge on real or imagined Qaddafi sympathizers, to torture innocent civilians, and to contemptuously disregard the authority of the state. "Unless urgent action is taken to establish the rule of law and respect for human rights," the report concludes, "there is a very real risk that the patterns of abuse that inspired the ‘17 February Revolution' will be reproduced and entrenched."

Others I spoke to think this picture is overdrawn. A senior U.S. government official bridled at the Wild West analogy, and said that the security atmosphere has improved significantly over the last six months. Vandewalle pointed out that the brigade that had taken over the Tripoli airport last month had been successfully disarmed (by another militia), and said, "There's little doubt in my mind that they're going to get those militias under control; it's just a matter of where and when." What is clear is that integrating the militias, who number over 100,000 fighters, into the Libyan security forces will be the single greatest challenge facing the new government. In recent months, the transitional government tried to do just that by hiring ex-militias to provide security, largely through a force called the Supreme Security Committees (SSC). But Libya scholar Frederic Wehrey recently wrote that "Many Libyans have feared the SSC as unruly thugs" whose loyalty is still pledged to their militia commander. 

That's a huge problem, but it's one that could be whittled down through a combination of political legitimacy and money. A new government which Libyans believed in -- unlike the transitional government which often looked hapless -- will put pressure on the militias to cooperate, and to re-formulate themselves as political entities, as, for example, the Sadrists have done in Iraq. It's striking that after being thoroughly trounced Belhaj calmly accepted the outcome; the party's spokesman acknowledged, "We've got to reevaluate our performance."

Money can pay for programs of disarmament, training, and employment. And Libya, fortunately, has money. Oil production has inched close to the pre-war level of 1.77 million barrels per day, and the International Monetary Fund estimates that national revenue this year will reach about $45 billion -- this in a country with just 6.7 million people. Rosy projections of oil revenue in post-war Iraq were upended by sabotage and terrorism, but so far Libya's oil infrastructure, though desperately in need of modernization, has not been damaged.

The bottom line is that it's hardly ridiculous to feel hopeful about Libya's prospects. The seriousness with which Libyans took their elections almost universally impressed observers. Moreover, Libyans are generally well disposed towards the United States thanks to the Obama administration's role in the NATO bombing. A Brooking Institution report even quoted an ex-jihadi as saying, "Our view is starting to change of the West. If we hated the Americans 100 percent, today it is less than 50 percent." I'd call that progress.

Libya offers a rare exception to the bad news emanating from the Arab world in recent months. Oil revenue and a small population certainly help, but there also may be a perverse source of good fortune. Egypt is a country with strong institutions, which was supposed to improve the prospects of a democratic transition; but those institutions, including the military and the judiciary, are now obstructing the popular will and perhaps leading to a crisis. Thanks to Qaddafi's megalomaniac rule, Libya is a country of no institutions; and so no powerful bloc can stand athwart the political process. It would be a charming irony if Qaddafi's most pernicious legacy turned out to be Libya's hidden advantage.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/GettyImage

Terms of Engagement

The Twisted Arc of History

In the land of no-good-options, is Barack Obama doing enough to push the cause of human rights in the Middle East? 

This has been a week, or two, to try men's souls. Egypt's military rulers, tiring of the flimsy trappings of democracy, dissolved the parliament, reinstated martial law, and promulgated a constitutional declaration arrogating virtually  all legislative power to themselves. That was the banner headline, but Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, not wishing to be outdone, instructed the "executive agencies" to take "the necessary legal measures" to deal with those who criticize the military, whose chief business over the last year had been beating and jailing protestors. And let's not forget the Libyan militia leaders who kidnapped and imprisoned officials from the International Criminal Court.

At such moments we must remind ourselves that the path to democracy is long and winding, the arc of history bends towards justice, and so forth. Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, worked in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, and he reminded me a few days ago that democratizing states which regress do, in the end, "fall back on the institutions they've had in the past." That's an encouraging thought for Chile or Hungary but not, as Posner acknowledges, for Libya, or for that matter any other Arab state. They have no such institutions to fall back on. Nor did Russia, or Ukraine, for example, which reverted to strongman rule after an unhappy spell with liberal reform. The arc of history bends in all sorts of directions.

Well, what then? How should the disheartening state of affairs in Egypt and elsewhere, and the recognition that things might not turn out well in the end, shape the behavior of the United States and other outside actors? There's a good case to be made that Washington should stand aside, let events play themselves out, and help whoever comes out on top pick up the pieces of the inevitable wreckage -- a case cogently, if brutally, made in a recent column by Les Gelb. Foreign Policy's own Aaron David Miller made a similar argument for a policy of benign neglect on Syria. There's an honorable  precedent to the realist case for restraint: As then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams famously declared in a July 4, 1821, oration: The United States "is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

There's a lot to be said for a prudent impartiality in the face of turmoil and profound uncertainty. But haven't we also learned about the costs of such prudence? Condoleezza Rice was quite right when she said in Cairo in 2005, "For 60 years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East -- and we got neither." The United States not only got neither, it also got a well-deserved reputation for supporting friendly autocrats, a reputation which made the country feared and disliked across the region. That didn't matter much while the autocrats ran the show, but that era has come to an end. Even in Egypt, public opinion now matters; and it behooves Washington, even if only for reasons of self-interest, to align itself with people's aspirations.

The Obama administration has, if anything, erred on the side of this imprudent prudence. The administration was slow to criticize President Hosni Mubarak as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest his rule in January 2011, and even slower to criticize the regime in Bahrain as it met peaceful protestors with tear gas, live ammunition, prison, and torture. Prudence is Barack Obama's watchword. There are far worse guides to action, particularly the magical faith in American power which propelled President George W. Bush after 9/11; but silence, too, can have unexpected costs. A national-security official was recently quoted in the New Yorker confessing, of Obama's decision to soft-pedal criticism of the fraudulent 2009 elections in Iran, "It turned out that what we intended as caution, the Iranians saw as weakness."

Obama believed, with very good reason, that nothing he said would advance the cause of reform on Iran, and he was not about to belabor Tehran just to burnish his own democratic credentials. Right now, the Arab world feels equally impervious to American influence.

The administration has issued appropriate criticism of the rolling coup now occurring in Egypt, but nothing Washington says or does, almost certainly including threats to cut military aid, is likely to deflect the military from its apparent goal of keeping the Muslim Brotherhood from taking power, and of hanging on to its own preeminent role. Similarly, Washington has remonstrated Bahrain, including through public remarks by Michael Posner during a visit to Manama last week, but the king, a Sunni, seems determined not to yield an inch to demands for more equal treatment by the majority Shiite population. In Bahrain, too, the United States has substantial leverage in the form of the Fifth Fleet, which is quartered there, but the king and his hard-line advisors are convinced that the protests threaten their very survival, and are unlikely to be moved by American suasion or threats.

So why bother then? Why remonstrate, much less threaten, if Washington can't do much to produce the outcomes it wants? Because, put simply, the difference between a bad outcome and a not-so-bad outcome matters so much. "Boy, have we helped the Libyan people into a new, free and democratic life," Gelb writes sardonically of the bombing campaign which ended the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime. The country, as he observes, seems poised to dissolve into a series of militarized city-states. And yet the Libyan people themselves are almost unanimous in believing themselves better off without Qaddafi. They desperately want everything they have lost out on over the last four decades. What the United State -- and others -- can do to help Libya become a coherent, functional, and democratic state is modest, but it's not nothing either. Posner, who was also just in Libya, says that the Justice Department is helping to organize a criminal justice system there. If the government can prosecute a few of Qaddafi's henchmen, the militias now acting as private jailers might begin to turn over their prisoners. It's certainly worth a try.

Of course, the big question now is Syria. Just as it's possible that the NATO intervention in Libya will have helped create a country as violent and even unjust as the one that existed before, so to could Western intervention in Syria have undreamed-of consequences. That strikes me as one good reason -- I can think of others -- not to re-enact the NATO air war in Syria. But it's not a good reason for the United States to stand aside while President Bashar al-Assad slaughters his own citizens. The Obama administration cannot adopt a prudent neutrality between Assad and those he is killing.

Aaron David Miller writes that Barack Obama is rightly more concerned about his own political future than about the lives of Syrians. Is it naïve of me to hope, and believe, that that's not the case? I think Obama's hand has been stayed by the fact that there's just no good solution, and that Russia has blocked attempts at even modestly better options. The question now before the administration is whether it will accept that Russia can not be brought around, and instead work with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to strengthen both the political and military capacity of the Syrian rebels. Recent news accounts imply that it is moving in that direction. In general, Obama has done the right thing during the Arab Spring, if not always exactly at the right time or with quite enough conviction.

Can we say for sure that this is the most effective way to advance American national security interests? No. The future of the Arab world really is impossible to predict from what feels like the eye of the hurricane. But sometimes -- and perhaps especially when things look most grim -- it's not enough to be the detached well-wisher of freedom.

Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images