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Why the Libyan revolution may not matter very much

All eyes have been riveted on the endgame in Libya, and I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard. Qaddafi was hard to ignore because his behavior was often peculiar and because he caused a lot of trouble over 40 years of rule. A violent uprising in which NATO has backed one side is bound to command a lot of attention too, and it's only natural for us to spend time trying to figure out what implications, if any, this will have for the broader process of political change that is taking place in the Arab world. Add it all up, and it's hardly a surprise that events in Tripoli have dominated the headlines and taken up a lot of megabytes and pixels here at FP.

 Nonetheless, I feel compelled to remind everybody that Libya is not in fact a very important country. It has a very small population (less than 6.5 million, which means that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg governs more people than Qaddafi ever did). Libya does have a lot of oil, but it's not a market-setting swing producer like Saudi Arabia or a major natural gas supplier like Russia. Libya has little industrial capacity or scientific/technological expertise, its military capabilities were always third-rate, and even its nuclear research programs never came anywhere near producing an actual weapon. And Qaddafi's incomprehensible ideology won few, if any converts, apart from those who had little choice but to pretend to embrace it.

Instead, Libya under Qaddafi was mostly significant as a sometime sponsor of terrorism and for Brother Muammar's own bizarre behavior. He was a troublemaker, to be sure, but fortunately he lacked the capability to cause as much trouble as he might have liked.

It is heartwarming to see the rebels triumph, and let's by all means hope that they defy expectations and manage to build a new and reliably democratic Libyan state. But in the larger scheme of the world this revolt is a pretty minor event. In the long term, more good would probably come from 1) getting the United States and Eurozone economies restarted (which would have lots of positive secondary effects), 2) preventing an intense security competition between the United States and China, 3) finding some way to reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions, 4) settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 5) ensuring that democracy takes firm root in Egypt, or 6) preventing more bloodbaths in South Asia (just to name a few).

I don't mean to be a killjoy here, and nothing I've just said diminishes the achievement of the courageous Libyans who have fought to regain control over their own country and their own lives. But their success won't help us make progress on a lot of other big issues in world politics, and we ought to keep that in mind too.

Stephen M. Walt

Avoiding a 'Mission Accomplished' moment in Libya

It's been obvious for awhile now that Muammar al-Qaddafi's days as Libya's leader were numbered, and the only question was how many people would be killed before his government finally collapsed. Assuming early reports are right, the good news is that the collapse came without a large-scale battle for Tripoli. Ordinary Libyans were thus spared further bloodshed and destruction, though sporadic fighting is still being reported in various parts of the capital.

I've been skeptical of this whole adventure from the beginning, but not because I didn't think we could get rid of Qaddafi if we tried. Although the war took longer and cost more than the pro-war party expected, the outcome was never in serious doubt. If you're a rebel group facing a not-very-competent set of government forces, and if you can persuade the world's strongest military powers to send sophisticated air assets to help your cause, then you can probably get rid of a pesky potentate like Qaddafi. Whether our intervention was necessary or wise, however, depends on how the post-Qaddafi Libya evolves.

The danger is that we will have another "Mission Accomplished" moment, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy, NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen, President Obama, and their various pro-intervention advisors give each other a lot of high-fives, utter solemn words about having vindicated the new "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) doctrine, and then turn to some new set of problems while Libya deteriorates. And as an anonymous "senior American military officer" told the New York Times: "The leaders I've talked to do not have a clear understanding how this will all play out."

Neither do any of the rest of us. We can all hope that the worst doesn't happen and that Libya's new leaders exhibit Mandela-like wisdom and restraint. Nobody expects perfection, of course; I can live with the "I told you sos" from hawkish liberal interventionists if it all works out reasonably well. But it will be no small task to construct a workable government in Libya, given the dearth of effective institutions and the potential divisions among different social groups. And then there's all that oil revenue to divide up, which tends to bring out peoples' worse instincts.

As in Iraq, therefore, ousting a discredited dictator is likely to be the easy part, and the hard part is just beginning. Aren't you glad the United States and Europe have lots of time and money to devote to rebuilding yet another potential failed state?

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images