Is Libya Beyond Repair?

Not quite. But the question is whether anyone really wants to help. 

The news from Libya isn't just bad -- it's farcical. The spokesman for the Ministry of Martyrs and Missing People denied reports that the minister had escaped an assassination attempt; his car was "merely struck by a stray bullet during a local gunfight." Oil exports dropped to less than 10 percent of capacity as protestors blocked oil fields and refused to negotiate. Gunmen stole $55 million from an armored truck heading for a Libyan bank. And that's just this week. On Oct. 10, the prime minister was kidnapped by one militia, and released by another.

A decade ago, Arab experts and scholars of democracy warned President George W. Bush that his plans to bring democracy to the Arab world would fail, both because the region would resist American influence and because it lacked the institutions and the habits of behavior upon which democracy could be built. The debacle of Iraq proved that they were right about the first problem; the Arab Spring, paradoxically, seems to be proving the second point. In places where citizens have risen up on their own to overthrow a dictator -- Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya -- the vacuum of power has been filled mostly by chaos. It's no wonder that in a speech to the U.N. in which he laid out his priorities for the Middle East, President Barack Obama said virtually nothing about democracy.

Libya is carrying out a very peculiar, and right now very unhappy, experiment in political change. The 42-year-old reign of Muammar al-Qaddafi was so utterly personal that when he fell from power, everything fell with him. Libya was left with no governing institutions at all. It is, as the authors of a recent article in The Journal of Democracy observe, almost impossible to build a democracy and a government at the same time, since new leaders depend on institutions to deliver the benefits which convince citizens that democracy is worth having. What's more, they write, Qaddafi's revolutionary regime taught Libyans to trust no one beyond their own extended family, thus sowing a bone-deep distrust of government -- which helps explain why the country's 300 militias have refused to disarm, and why workers in the oil sector prefer blackmail to negotiations.

Libya ought to have a decent future: With just 5.5 million people and vast oil reserves, the country has the GDP per capita of Turkey; there are few sectarian divides; and the international community, which gave the rebellion military and political support, is eager to help make the country work. And yet the country is locked in a vicious cycle. The government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has precious little legitimacy because militias refuse to disarm and continue to act as they wish. Meanwhile, the government's fecklessness in turn persuades Libyans that they can only get what they want at the barrel of a gun. Insecurity leads to weak legitimacy leads to insecurity. Unless Libya can break the cycle, that future will remain a tormenting dream.

But will it? Everyone I have spoken to in recent days was, remarkably, ever so slightly optimistic. Libya seems to keep approaching a brink and then backing off. The Zeidan kidnapping ended peacefully; rumbles between militias rarely lead to large numbers of killings. Libyans seem genuinely afraid of jeopardizing their own revolution -- something which can hardly be said, for example, of Egyptians, who cheered the army as it overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government.

But something has to happen soon. Libya's government has money, but no ability to spend it. The General National Congress, a constitutional assembly which has neither made advances on the constitution nor advanced legislation, mostly gets in the way of Zeidan's initiatives. Central ministries are helpless. Ben Fishman, who recently stepped down as the Libya specialist on Obama's National Security Council, points out that the prime minister could avoid those constraints by spending money through municipal councils, perhaps to help create jobs for young people who now view a gun as their only asset -- and thus to demonstrate that the government matters.

Libya also desperately needs some sort of process of national reconciliation, such as Yemen is now holding, in order to reach agreement on fundamental questions, such as the degree of autonomy which the country's three regions will enjoy. Zeidan has called for such a dialogue, but since every political faction in the country insists on sponsoring the talks, nothing has happened. Dysfunction thus breeds dysfunction. And yet the only way to break the vicious cycle is to increase the legitimacy of the government, through spending programs, and to make the new Libya inclusive, as the old one was not.

Libyans need to learn everything -- how to make a budget, run a ministry, create a national military. But in the aftermath of the revolution, Libyan officials proudly refused Western offers of help; they wanted stuff, not training. Zeidan now understands how bad the situation is; at the last G-8 meeting, he asked Western states to train a national army of 8,000-10,000 troops. This, too, is very late; had training begun in 2011, Libya might not be at the mercy of militias. A senior Obama administration official said to me that past efforts had been thwarted by the haplessness of the Libyan government: "They couldn't get the right signature on the letter required by our laws." Or they couldn't cut a check.

In any case, the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last September pushed almost all assistance efforts to the side. A program to install advisors in the Ministry of Defense was, this official says, "paused." Now the effort is being revived. Italy, Britain, and the United States have agreed to start training the national army. (The U.S. effort will take place in Bulgaria and is set to begin this spring.) By this summer, Libya may have a thousand or so soldiers under arms, which would allow the state to begin challenging the militias; this, too, could help break the vicious cycle. Of course, Libya has to survive until then, which is no sure thing.

Libya does not, however, prove that democracy in the Arab world is doomed. Of course it's preferable for democratic habits and institutions to grow organically over time, or for autocrats to hand off power in "pacted transitions." But most autocrats won't cooperate, and most people won't wait. And so Libyans are now caught between building a country and holding it hostage. It's a harrowing process, but it has also forced Libyans to devise their own rough-and-ready forms of compromise.

Nor does Libya demonstrate that international actors can't do anything to shape better outcomes. Rather, it shows that they have to tread very carefully. Outsiders can do very little to help Libyans -- or Yemenis or Tunisians or Egyptians -- learn the habits of compromise which make political reconciliation possible. They are going to have to have their own fights, and make their own mistakes. "There is no solution other than to go muddling on through," says Ian Martin, the former U.N. representative in Libya. Martin cautions that "a more assertive role by the international community will go badly" thanks to Libyan resistance. The U.N., he suggests, must stand between outside states and Libya. That may well be right.

But Libya cannot build a state on its own. And it cannot solve the security dilemma without significant outside help. The good news is that Libya does not need what the United States will not offer -- money. What it does need is training in subjects that the United States knows a lot about. Whether Washington can or will help Libyans learn these democratic lessons is another question. We are acutely aware these days of what we cannot do; after Iraq, such a chastening was inevitable, and necessary. And yet we can do some things. We can help the Libyans help themselves. And they may wind up feeling very grateful that we have done so.


Terms of Engagement

The Global War on Thinking Bad Thoughts

Can America really win the battle against Islamic extremism?

In the speech he gave last May announcing a re-formulation of the war on terror, President Barack Obama acknowledged that "we cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root"; the only alternative to "perpetual war" is a sustained effort to reduce "the wellsprings of extremism." The president should hardly have needed to make this obvious point; he had, after all, used almost identical language from his earliest days as a candidate. But after five years of responding to terrorism with many of the same lethal tactics George W. Bush had used, Obama needed to remind his listeners, and perhaps himself, that Islamic extremism can be blunted, but not defeated, by force.

It's not at all clear, five months later, how Obama plans to dry up those wellsprings. But the administration made a modest start in that direction with the announcement in September that the United States and other nations would establish a $200 million, ten-year effort to counter violent extremism. For reasons of marketing, the new entity is blandly called the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience and has been scrubbed clean of any explicit reference to Islam. But the goal is clearly to fund local programs designed to counter Islamist extremism. The initial programs will be based in six Muslim-majority countries and, in a show of nonpartisanship, Colombia.

The White House, which understands very well that any such effort will be doomed from the start if it carries a U.S. stamp, has spent several years trying to find an appropriate platform for the anti-extremism campaign. The sponsoring body is something called the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a harmless and high-minded body of which the United States and Turkey are co-chairs. The fund is structured as a partnership -- like, say, the Global Fund for AIDS -- which will receive funding from private sources as well as states. Republicans who consider foreign aid a waste of money should be mollified by the fact that the U.S. plans to spend all of $2 or $3 million on the effort this coming year. Nor has anyone else rushed to fill the coffers: Qatar, with its bottomless resources, has pledged just $5 million. Indeed, the whole thing will probably collapse unless Secretary of State John Kerry becomes the fund's cheerleader and fundraiser-in-chief.

What will the fund fund? According to a U.S. official involved with its development, the "low-hanging fruit" could include funding local organizations that can produce and distribute textbooks that promote tolerance, things like providing job-training for youth at risk of radicalization -- programs which could, if not designed properly, all too easily blend into the vast pool of existing development projects. "The ultimate target," he says, "has to be those individuals that are on the cusp of being radicalized and being able to bring them back from the brink" -- for example, by bringing moderate imams into Pakistani prisons in order to counter radical versions of Islam, or supplying public defenders so that petty criminals don't linger for years in prisons where they're likely to become radicalized. "The challenge," he says, "is to find those local organizations that have credibility with access to those individuals. There are not enough of these right now."

But there are some. One is Khudi, an organization in Pakistan which holds workshops for young people offering a non-Islamist take on Islam and holds televised debates to dramatize the issue. Khudi held one such debate soon after Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for defending girls' right to go to school. The debate was held in Mingora, Malala's home town. The Libyan government has recently asked Khudi to start similar programs there.

Khudi is the local-action arm of Quilliam, a British counter-extremism think tank founded by Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain, British Pakistanis who were both former Islamists. Nawaz has been in the United States promoting his new book, Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, and trying to drum up funding for the two organizations. Nawaz was a kind of boy-genius recruiter for Hizb al-Tahrir (HT), a deeply politicized if officially non-violent Islamist group, and he has the intellectual confidence, the charisma, and the gift for self-dramatization which makes for a very effective public figure. When we met earlier this week, he told me, with a mixture of trepidation and pride, that he just heard that al-Shabab in Somalia had included him on a list of British Muslims to be killed -- a tribute to his high-profile role as Islamist de-programmer.

The story Nawaz tells in Radical is of an angry and restless teenager looking for a sense of identity and self-respect, which he ultimately found in HT's vision of a restored Caliphate. With no intellectual foundation of his own, he was a perfect target for Islamists who offered a narrative of world history based on implacable Western hostility to Muslims, with citations selectively culled from the Quran as it suited their purpose. He only began to re-think his principles during a four-year stint in Egyptian prison -- the same prison, ironically, where Sayyid Qutb formulated Signposts, his proto-al Qaeda tract, but also where Hasan Hudaybi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, wrote a counter-polemic renouncing violence.

The lesson Nawaz took from his own agonizing trajectory was that a very powerful and self-reinforcing Islamist narrative can only be countered by an equally powerful non-Islamist one. Nawaz dreams of countering the "Islamist intimidation" which keeps politicians in Pakistan and elsewhere from challenging extremists with a "democratic intimidation" which would make them fear the political consequences of defying moderates. He imagines an organization which, like the Muslim Brotherhood, would win converts with a combination of social services and intellectual vision.

To call this quixotic is possibly a disservice to Don Quixote. Today's Pakistan is a place where a provincial governor, Salman Taseer, can be gunned down in broad daylight for criticizing an apostasy law -- and then lawyers jostle for the right to defend the murderer. It's a place where Malala's bravery has won her far more critics than defenders. That is the magnitude of the challenge which Khudi, and the Global Fund have taken on. It's hardly a good sign that the initiative to challenge the extremist narrative has come, not from inside Pakistan, a country of 180 million people and a large urban middle class, but from outsiders. The extremist narrative, after all, can only be countered by people who are prepared to fight and die for a peaceful alternative.

Nawaz argues that the United States under Obama has shifted, barely, from a neoconservative vision of democracy-promotion-by-force to a "neocon-lite" project of decapitating al Qaeda leaders through drone strikes and lightning raids. "We've turned it into a battle against a Mafia-like organization," he says, rather than a war of ideas. That may be a slight caricature, but Obama has paid far more attention to trying to improve America's image in the Arab world through fine proclamations of "mutual respect" than he has to actually draining the wellsprings of extremism. Obama's success in decimating al Qaeda core has been offset by the rise of its affiliates across the Middle East and North Africa, while his personal diplomacy has done very little to improve America's standing in the Middle East. In any case, it's irrelevant to the problem of extremism. If the alternative to Islamist extremism is American liberal democracy, Islamism will win.

Of course, a president uses the tools he has. Obama is very good at "public diplomacy," so at least in his first few years in office he devoted a great deal of attention to it. He can influence the war of ideas inside Islam only from a great distance, and with great delicacy. And the tectonic plates of intellectual formulation grind at a generational pace. A president cannot claim victory in the war of ideas, as he can for killing bad guys. Nevertheless, U.S. leaders spent generations fighting Communism as an idea and not just as a military threat. Communism eventually sank under the weight of its accumulated failures. Islamic extremism, always oppositional, may be even harder to dislodge. Still, the only way to beat an idea is with another idea.