The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Libya: The End of the Beginning
Published on October 27, 2011

I have taken up space in the electronic ether twice before on the general subject of Libya: once on March 22, just days after President Obama ordered a cruise missile attack on Tripoli, and again on August 16, when I raised the prospect of revenge killings on a large scale and what that might portend for a NATO policy ostensibly based on humanitarian considerations. It seems fitting, therefore, that I do so again now that Muammar Qaddafi has met his fate. As before, I find that the general reaction, at least in the United States, to the events portrayed in the news is a curious one that does not rest easily with what the future is sure to bring. As before, the reason is the same: a twin lack of knowledge and curiosity about the country and culture that is the object of our supposed interest.

The overwhelming conclusion that most observers in Western countries have reached about last week’s events near Sirte is that the Libya problem has now been solved, and that the good guys have won. The Obama Administration has contributed its share to this almost universally dominant optic, as has the NATO command, which has gone public with its plans to conclude the military mission by the end of the month. The Obama Administration, indeed, has had a very good run lately with spinning Arab-inflected stories. Not only has it waxed triumphant about events in Libya; it has also portrayed the failure to reach agreement with the Iraqi government about a future U.S. troop presence there as both a success and a fulfillment of a campaign promise to end the war in Iraq.

Alas, the news is not so good either in Libya or in Iraq. Nor is it good in Syria, and the Administration’s policy here, too, has been flawed—not by the decision to withdraw Ambassador Ford from Damascus, but rather by the strange mixed signals Administration rhetoric has sent to the Syrian opposition. Withal, the recent news liable to make the biggest difference in the future of the region and U.S. interests there has gone almost without official comment. That news, of course, is the death of the Saudi Crown Prince and what it portends for succession in Saudi Arabia.

We will return to the Iraqi, Syrian and Saudi situations in due course, because what is happening in those and other countries forms the overall regional context that gives meaning to recent events in Libya. But for now let us focus on Libya itself.

The best way to characterize the state of play in Libya is not, as the popular consensus has it, that the war is over and the Western stake in North Africa is safe from peril, but that what we have witnessed is, at best, the end of the beginning. A Western-aided campaign to bring down the Qaddafi regime has succeeded, but it has succeeded only in making Libya safe for civil strife, political incoherence and possibly internal warfare, which might include acts of terrorism, protracted insurgency and multiple foreign interventions both below and above the line of sight.

If we look objectively at the political situation inside the country, four facts, already noted by several observers, stand out as definitive.

First, the coalition of rebel forces that overthrew the regime is bound together by nothing other than opposition to Qaddafi, his family, his tribe and the assorted cronies who have benefited from his misrule and who are complicit in his crimes. They are divided by region, by tribe, by views about religion and politics, and by strong personalities. There are also ethnic divisions: The Tuareg part of the country, toward the southwest, was aligned with the old regime and furnished part of Qaddafi’s shock troops. They may cause trouble or even in time try to secede if a new regime is not to their liking. None of the factions in Libya possess what Westerners understand by the meaning of the word ideology. Despite targeted public relations efforts by the leaders of the National Transitional Council, they certainly cannot be described as democratic in any known sense of the term. I hope this does not come as a surprise to anyone because, after all, the Libyans have never experienced democracy in any form since the Libyan state congealed in 1951, and Libyan society has for good historical reasons never developed or displayed the attitudinal prerequisites for a stable democracy: the idea of a loyal opposition, presumptive egalitarianism, the rule of law and the rather abstract idea of representation. It took centuries for these attitudes to develop and deepen in the West, subsequently propelled into modernity by the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, none of which ever touched down more than very lightly in the vicinity of present-day Libya.

Second, the Qaddafi regime, in power since September 1, 1969, long ago sucked all the political oxygen out of the Libyan atmosphere in terms of governance experience. No one among the real rebels knows how to govern anything. Some former regime hatchet men and hangers on went over to the rebels at various points since February, some claiming to have had a genuine change of heart but most probably just trying to save their posteriors from the kind of treatment Qaddafi suffered last week. Nevertheless, these are the only people in rebel ranks who know how to run anything, and it may well be that they will rise in power relative to the rebel rabble around them, most of whom would rather go back to their homes than stay in Tripoli. Their main opposition is likely to be determined Islamists. This setup does not augur well for a future Libyan democracy.

Third, the old regime’s enormous stock of weapons––of all shapes and sizes––has now been let loose both inside the country and, thanks to arms entrepreneurs from various places, throughout the region at large. This is what happens when you bring a regime down without sufficient forces on the ground to protect ammunition dumps and other critical sites. All factions in Libya are both armed and ill disciplined. All are in need of money, if they want to stay in the game, and that makes them vulnerable to external propitiations of nearly every sort.

 Fourth and finally on this point, while Qaddafi is dead, some members of his extended family and his tribe are not. Civil wars in places like Libya do not resemble country club tennis matches. After someone appears to have won and someone else appears to have lost the two do not amble cheerfully toward the net to shake hands. A large entourage of regime supporters, including family members, left Libya some weeks ago for Niger, loaded with money and lots of information. The NATO countries have been lucky that in the seven months it took them to bring down this brittle and very weak regime there have been no spectacular acts of terrorism directed against them from the Qaddafi bunker.

The danger of that happening now is much less, but it is not zero. What this means is that the threat to the new Libyan regime and those countries that support it in one way or another will now come from outside Libya. The war against the regime is thus close to being over, therefore, and as we know from the aphorism about hand grenades and horseshoes, close to being over is not the same as actually, really and—as the munchkin coroner in The Wizard of Oz put it—“sincerely” over.

The actual situation in Libya being what it is, once the orgy of triumphalism subsides, NATO will have to decide what to do. How it decides may be partly a function of what it thinks it has already done. The NATO campaign is being spun as a terrific success. I for one do not blame the spinners for their spin, because perceptions matter a lot. But no one in his right mind ought to feel confident and optimistic about what the NATO campaign in Libya says about the alliance. As I already mentioned, the fact that it took seven months to bring down this regime and capture its loon-in-chief is not very reassuring. (I felt the same way about the triumphalism that erupted after the death of Osama bin Laden back in May. That it took nearly ten years to get this bastard was nothing to be proud of.)

As to the non-U.S. members of the alliance, they did not distinguish themselves militarily. It took more than 9,000 sorties to achieve anything significant, and those sorties were flown at an operational tempo that makes banana slugs look speedy. Even at such a tempo, the French, British and other air forces involved nearly ran out of ammunition, spare parts and specialized aviation fuel. On the political level the European allies squabbled with each other endlessly, many refusing to fly combat missions because they either worried about blowback, had moral qualms or actually believed the United Nations resolution that authorized the operation on the basis of humanitarian considerations alone. It’s no struggle to understand how European leaders have half-assed their way into near debacle with regard to their banks when you look at how they behaved in Libya.

As to the Obama Administration, it preferred to lead from behind. I personally have no problem with the concept of leading from behind. It’s a good thing, it seems to me, when one’s reputation is so strong that others can be made to pull the load in one’s stead. But like every good idea, this one makes sense, or not, depending on context. And the context is one in which United States appears in the region to be headed for the door everywhere at once. We are leaving Iraq completely, it would seem. We have long since paved the exit ramp out of Afghanistan. We have verbally supported the Syrian opposition, but we have made clear that no intervention on our part is in the offing, and even more bizarre—especially in the eyes of Arabs and others in the region—we have conditioned our support for the Syrian opposition on its not taking up arms. The Assad regime has killed more than 3,000 unarmed protesters since early spring, far more than the Qaddafi regime killed in Libya before the NATO intervention. Anyone who had read President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech might have concluded from it that this was a man who would never equate aggressive violence with acts of self-defense. But that person, apparently, would be wrong.

How does all this look to the locals? It looks like United States, despite having a military that is more surgically capable than ever, is determined to bug out of the region. The Obama Administration, after all, has been unable even to get Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas to stop doing things that do not even serve their own interests. It doesn’t get much more feckless than that. This is the context into which “leading from behind” falls, and it is a context that makes this…(one hesitates to call it a strategy, but…) this strategy so ill considered.

As those who have read my earlier posts know, I opposed U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya on the grounds that the very predictable mess that would ensue from starting this particular war was very unlikely to be justified by any imaginable positive outcome. But once the Obama Administration spurned my advice, my view was that the Administration needed to finish the job as soon as possible, both because a wounded loon is far more dangerous than a dead one and because of the optic that NATO dithering would send to those with means and motive to harm the United States and its allies. I’m sorry to say that this latter advice was also spurned. What the President said would take “days, not weeks”, turned into many months of less than impressive operations because United States refused to invest its power to ensure a speedy and conclusive campaign.

 Once again, the Obama Administration and its NATO allies face a critical decision point. Should NATO dispatch troops to Libya to prevent a political free-for-all that might devolve into civil war? Or should it stay away in the knowledge that, first, Libya is not strategically very important and, second, that at least the Islamist elements in the rebel coalition, such as it is, are very likely to shoot at those forces and otherwise use them as props to peddle their own salafist politics in a tumultuous Libyan context? As with most seminal decisions in the wake of a war, this is not an easy choice. We face this choice precisely because very few wars end cleanly, which is yet another reason why I was so reluctant to get involved in this one in the first place. That said, it is a choice that needs to be made.

In my view, any foreign intervention in Libya should wear a civilian face insofar as possible, and any military face should be maximally light, maximally short-lived and maximally non-U.S. in character. Another United Nations Security Council resolution would help in whatever is done, because for curious reasons that we need not rehearse here, that organization still exudes legitimacy to many. The worst thing we could possibly do is to militarize the aftermath of the Libyan crisis with a high U.S. profile. It would be nutty to withdraw militarily from places that are strategically significant only to enter a place that isn’t. As we have learned, however, nothing can be ruled out with this crew.

Now if the French, the British, the Danes, the Canadians and even the Italians (oh, wouldn’t that be rich?) want to kick Libyan dust for a few months, we cannot stop them and should not strain ourselves trying. And if they run into trouble, we should help them because that’s what allies do. But if we do not put U.S. forces on the ground, as well we shouldn’t, we will naturally forfeit our right to criticize and carp when they screw up and find themselves wishing they had done a better job occupying Afghanistan instead. That’s a price I am willing to pay.

Before briefly discussing Iraq, Syria and the rest of the region, I think a word or two are in order about the official Western rhetoric that has been directed toward the Libyan rebels in recent days, weeks and months. Since it is still fresh in our memory, let us begin with the fevered accusations leveled against the rebels that the way Colonel Qaddafi met his end might constitute a war crime. Perhaps those who said such things were trying to protect the integrity of the International Criminal Court and the principle of supranational jurisdiction for which it stands. The ICC, it will be recalled, indicted Qaddafi some months ago, thus making any prospect of a negotiated settlement more difficult to obtain than it otherwise would have been (not that it was ever likely). But whatever the reasons for these statements, the reaction of nearly every Libyan was quite predictable. “Hey, this is a war”, they replied.

I assume that the leaders of the National Transitional Council in Libya spoke these words in English, or perhaps in French, when they registered their mild riposte to Western criticism, but I wonder what Arabic word they had in mind when they thought the thought. There is more than one way to say “war” in Arabic. One meaning encompasses Abu-Bakr’s rules of war, which prohibit attacks against civilians, disrespect to the elderly and children, the cutting down of fruit trees and more besides. This is harb, which literally also means sword. But there is another term that connotes all-out, reciprocal, save-your-ass mayhem in a war begun by evil people to intimidate society itself. In defense against such a war, you are permitted, most believe, to do pretty much whatever it takes to defeat the evildoers. This kind of war is harabah. This parallels roughly the English witticism that turns the Golden Rule around for purposes of blood sport: Do unto others before they can do unto you. It is this second meaning that most Libyans probably had in mind when they claimed honestly to be not just surprised but downright flummoxed by the Western complaint.

This Western turn of phrase about war crimes uttered last week is not an isolated event. Some months ago, after the tide of battle had turned against the regime, various European and some American observers, governmental and otherwise, began warning rebel forces about the proper treatment of prisoners. There were fewer prisoners than there otherwise might have been because there were more summary executions than there might have been. (The Red Cross reported yesterday finding the executed bodies of 267 pro-Qaddafi supporters in Sirte, and that is doubtless the first of many such finds to come.) We do not know and will probably never know how many summary executions the rebels conducted. Nor will we probably ever know how many of those killings—of civilians as well as soldiers—were perpetrated in revenge for the massive Abu Salim prison massacre conducted by the Qaddafi regime back in 1996. Whatever the numbers, Western officials commented for the press about their consternation over what they referred to as “extrajudicial killings.”

When I saw this phrase on the front page of the New York Times, I nearly fell off my chair. I asked myself just what exactly the reporter thought he had written. To accuse the rebels of extrajudicial killings presupposes the existence of judicial killings, which means the existence of capital punishment. But to suppose the existence of judicial killings presupposes the existence of an operating judiciary system that is fair and consistent at least by its own cultural standards. But Libya has not had such a judicial system for crimes of this gravity since September 1969. So just what were this reporter and his sources actually talking about? If ever there were a term that did not translate culturally, “extrajudicial killing” is it.

It soon dawned on me that officials in Washington and in various European capitals were wont to say such things in part because the official justification for the NATO intervention was based on humanitarian criteria. One has to admire their consistency. If the NATO intervention was predicated on a concept like the Responsibility to Protect, it stands to reason that the basic moral principle involved should apply to both sides, or rather to all sides, in a civil war. But the mere fact that this kind of talk lands so strangely in a Libyan context just illustrates all the more vividly the disconnect between what goes on in such peoples’ heads and what goes on in the world outside of their little liberal bubble.

When I hear Western liberal sputterings about war crimes and extrajudicial killings in a place like Libya, I cannot prevent myself from thinking of the kind of people who brought the world the Locarno Pact and the Kellogg-Briand Treaty. Such people, who imagine themselves to be very progressive, moral and intellectually sophisticated, and who are quite sure that they represent the leading edge of progress in the world, got World War II and the Holocaust for their troubles instead. Maybe on their better days the current crew of this school of thought does represent the leading edge of progress in the world, but on all the other days they show themselves to be the most ethnocentrically self-righteous and inadvertently patronizing people on the planet.

Let me be blunt: Arabs and other non-Western peoples have their own ways of doing things, and these ways have worked tolerably well since before most Europeans thought better of trials by ordeal. But supranationalist Western liberals just can’t understand or tolerate the fact that other people don’t think about these subjects or display the same value hierarchies as they do; it’s almost as if, just perhaps, non-Westerners’ personal experience and collective history might be different. When pious Muslims criticize the West for materialism, promiscuity and disrespect shown to teachers, elders and women, most Westerners dismiss these criticisms with a flippant disdain for their supposedly primitive or archaic nature. Yet when these same people find their own criticism of Arabs and other Muslims rejected out of hand, if usually more politely, they cannot fathom why. This would be funny if it weren’t so distressing, but the fact that so many people in the West today neither understand nor respect the dignity of cultural differences really is distressing, because it gets us into no end of trouble.

Finally, as promised, let us look to the region more broadly. I will be brief, not least because, again, many other observers have recently trod this path before me, shedding plenty of light that needs little further illumination.

Just as the situation in Libya today represents the end of the beginning, the same may be said about Iraq. There is nothing to celebrate. I am not privy to what went wrong with the SOFA negotiations. (SOFA is Pentagon talk for “status of forces agreement.”) Some observers claim that the Iraqi government is so divided and generally incompetent that it could not make any decision at all, whether to invite the United States to stay or tell it to leave. We pulled the plug on the negotiations. Only those who know the detailed history of these negotiations are in a position to make a credible judgment about what happened, and I certainly hope they will, in public, when the time is right. But for now, what the almost complete and imminent exit of U.S. military forces from Iraq means is very simple to describe: Iran wins the war.

This is no time and place to dredge up old business. Suffice it to say that the triumphalist version of the Iraq War before it was actually launched held that the United States, by maneuvering itself up real close to Iran, and supported in so doing by a new and very friendly government in Baghdad, would dramatically improve the U.S. position vis-à-vis Iran. As best I can tell, no one thought to ask before March 2003 what might happen if the war did not turn out to be such a terrific triumph—if, for example, we were to end up with a Shi‘i-dominated government in Baghdad subject to significant Iranian influence, if not a veto over key Iraqi foreign and security policy judgments. Now we know, or are soon to find out.

When the United States finally does withdraw essentially all of its military forces from Iraq, and not very long after does the same with regard to Afghanistan, this will free up Iranian concerns about two of its borders. Will this retrenchment of U.S. power from its borders cause the Iranian leadership to become heady and hubristic? With any luck it will, because that would lead to Iranian overextension that would be toxic in the wider Arab world and beyond. But we do not know if that will happen. A lot depends on what occurs in Syria. If the Alawi regime hangs on, then Sunnis will fear Shi‘a encirclement just as the Shi‘a have often complained about Sunni encirclement. If a Sunni regime should arise in Damascus, that will change things around. It will certainly make the Saudi regime breath a little easier, because it is, in its own mind if not also actually, target number one for a Shi‘a regional push toward collective hegemony.

In a sectarian struggle of this sort, other countries also factor in: Egypt is politically preoccupied and economically weak (and getting weaker), so Turkey under its current Islamist government may find itself with open doors to Sunni Arab countries that formally paid little attention to its strategic significance. This will delight the Turks, whose foreign policy may be described as somewhere between nostalgic and delusional.

It bears note that the fluidity of Middle Eastern geopolitics right now has almost nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians. It bears further and more important note, however, that the current fluidity has a great deal to do with perceptions of American withdrawal from the region.

U.S. grand strategy is actually very easy to describe, although for some reason very few take the trouble actually to do it. It goes like this: Since World War II, we have been forward deployed, mainly on the brackets of Eurasia, in order to prevent any potential hegemon from gathering the resources of either peninsular Europe or East Asia for use against us. We do this by suppressing security competitions in those regions in various ways, largely by interposing our own resources to deflate the local motives for such competition. Since the British withdrawal East of Suez in 1971, the United States under successive administrations has in effect extended this basic approach to the Middle East. The United States has not been successful in suppressing all security competitions in the Middle East, but it has been successful in suppressing most of them and keeping those we could not suppress at a level that did not endanger international order and peace. There were some close calls to be sure, not least in October 1973, but on the whole the policy has succeeded admirably throughout the Cold War and since. Now it appears to be flagging if not failing, and a new multipartite security competition looks to be developing in the region. It figures to be a real dilly, with lots of moving parts and consequences no one can predict at this point.

Is it too late for the United States to clap the lid back on the pot in the Middle East? We certainly have the military resources to do so—even despite the military’s facing unprecedented fiscal austerity in the years ahead. But we lack many of the non-kinetic resources we need and, above all, we lack a determined leadership wise enough to understand the strategic landscape in the region, and what it means for the United States and its allies across the globe in the years to come.

This is why, ultimately, all the time and money and anxiety and attention that we have lavished on Libya in the past seven months, finite though it all has been, is so completely beside the point. Obsessing over Libya with the region as a whole in its current state of tumult resembles a man sunk up to his waist in slime and sewage worrying about the cleanliness of his fingernails.

Muammar Qaddafi is dead, and the crowd goes wild. It feels just like Saturday or Sunday afternoon—and all the sweeter because we’re justifiably worried about nearly everything else going on in our own country. Who can blame people for getting in a little rejoicing while the getting’s good? But a long time ago some wise men said, “Do not rejoice over the fall of your enemies.” They had several reasons in mind for this counsel. Some folks are about to learn them, the hard way.

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.