Libya may be in a better place without Muammar Gaddafi, but the country is certainly not out of the woods quite yet. Nobody expected a functioning government by now, but the liberal interventionists who supported the war were hoping for something better than what we now have.The Washington Post reports that factional violence between rival rebel groups has picked up again, casting doubt on the possibility of a healthy democracy emerging any time soon.
“We are now between two bitter options,” [Chairman of the Transnational Council Mustafa] Abdel Jalil told a gathering in the eastern city of Benghazi late Tuesday. Either “we deal with these violations strictly and put the Libyans in a military confrontation that we don’t accept,” he said, “or we split, and there will be a civil war.”The militias . . . appear to believe they must keep an armed presence in the capital to ensure they receive their share of political power […]Tripoli is now an unruly patchwork of fiefdoms, each controlled by a different militia. Police are rarely seen, except when directing traffic, and there is no sign of the newly created national army.
If Libya falls into another civil war, who will NATO bomb then?The fledgling government is struggling to establish a national police force and army and is unable to quell the fighting. NATO may have accomplished its ultimate goal of ousting Gaddafi, but it seems to have lost interest in its stated goal of ensuring civilian safety and dignity. Part of this is that the only part of Libya’s government that some westerners care about is working: the oil is flowing. Part of it is compassion fatigue: the world has only a very limited amount of political and military energy for humanitarian concerns. And part of it is what we can call Reconstruction Syndrome: as the Yankees discovered in the postwar South, it is much easier to defeat armies in the field than to build a new society on the ruins. Sooner or later, the carpetbaggers and the troops who back them give up and the good old boys are pretty much free to do what they want.Many people think that as long as the oil flows, it’s unlikely that the west will do much beyond diplomatic support and some aid to build a genuinely new Libya. Only if some armed group decides that interrupting the flow of oil is a way to improve its position in the domestic Libyan power struggle might the west re-engage in a more serious way.That’s wrong. Our interests in Libya run deeper than oil, and if events go badly there the west will have to spend more time, money and attention on Libya than many policy makers yet understand.The natural tendency of a number of developing countries is to fall apart into squabbling and bickering fiefdoms divided along religious, ethnic and tribal lines when the hard shell of dictatorial governance shatters. A best case scenario is what might be called weak modernization, when these contending parties restrict their competition mostly to institutions: parliaments, cabinet posts, patronage and so on. The odd killing and bombing still goes on, but the focus of the power struggle is inside the institutions of the state.The worst possibility is reversion to the law of the jungle: an anarchic and continuing struggle for power goes on in the streets and on the ground, and the institutions of the state wither away.Lebanon is a country which has oscillated between these two states of affairs for a generation. Iraq is on the cusp at the moment; while the Americans were there it gradually achieved a weak modernization, but as those troops departed it began to slide back toward open civil war.These look to be the alternatives in Libya today. Will the inevitable competition between its factions, tribes, regions and ethnic groups take place mostly within or mostly outside the structures of governance? Will it have a weak and bad government, or no government at all? Will it drift in the direction of Nigeria and Lebanon (weak states that serve as the main but not only focus of ethnic and religious competition) or of Afghanistan and Somalia (where the state almost disappears and the competition takes place in open though often low level civil war)?In the longer term, if a weak modern order cannot be established, it is likely that more advanced societies (like Iraq) will resolve the situation by accepting the rule of a new dictator. This is essentially what happened earlier in Syria and Iraq: people allowed dictatorships to establish themselves because of a fear of chaos. Places like Afghanistan and Somalia can live without governments indefinitely; places like Syria and Iraq cannot.Libya, arguably, is somewhere in between. It does not have the Iraqi or Egyptian experience of thousands of years of more or less orderly though not always very nice government; but its people have much more experience with and desire for life in a more or less orderly and unitary state than do people in Somalia and Afghanistan.The US would like everyone to have a state — if possible a nice state, but if not, we prefer a bad order to chaos. If Somalia had a government, it would be much easier to stop Somali pirates. That’s what we did in the old days in Libya: put pressure on the ruler to curb the Barbary pirates. But if there is no ruler, there is no way to deal with gangs of criminals, arms smugglers, pirates, immigrant smugglers, terrorist groups and so on.In the case of Somalia, the west has preferred to contain the consequences of Somali anarchy (like suppressing piracy at sea) to the herculean task of installing a functioning government in the country. In Afghanistan today the US is trying to deal with the question of how to leave that country with a weak state that doesn’t support global terrorism. In Iraq the US spent hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives to promote the development of a weak state following the ouster of Saddam.Libya’s western Mediterranean location means that the west cannot abide open anarchy in Libya. If the nascent weak state structures in Libya don’t hold together, countries like France, Spain and Italy won’t be able to ignore the consequences. Like it or not, those countries are committed to nation building of some kind on the shores of Tripoli. Fortunately, the Europeans care much more about this than we do; the US can continue to act as a back stop rather than being on the front lines of this one.