How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
As Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, wrote in a March 18, 2011, New York Times editorial about the European Union’s options in Libya, “sometimes the toughest question in world politics is: ‘And then what?’” In light of the furious pace of the negotiations surrounding the previous day’s adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 -- which extended a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized the international community to take whatever additional measures necessary to protect the country's population short of sending ground troops -- it is not surprising that no one had really stopped to consider her question. Indeed, more time seems to have been spent getting the European Union, the Arab League, the G-8, and the Security Council to agree on the language than on the content. Still, if those hurried diplomatic negotiations seemed a Herculean task, they may pale in comparison to the challenge that comes next: keeping Libya intact and on the road to recovery.
For his part, U.S. President Barack Obama promised that intervention would be short -- a matter of "days, not weeks." And British Prime Minister David Cameron admonished that international involvement should be limited to stopping Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi’s violence. Both caveats will prove unrealistic.
At this point, the international community has two options: to either protect the opposition movement in Cyrenaica, the vast eastern province in which Benghazi is located, but not force Qaddafi out of power, or make Qaddafi’s ouster an explicit goal. The former seems to be what Cameron had in mind when he spoke of selective containment -- perhaps in an attempt to sanitize international involvement. It was also echoed in Obama's call for short-term intervention. Still, this kind of containment is neither possible nor feasible. Indeed, it would defeat the very logic of Resolution 1973.
Of course, ongoing military strikes will undoubtedly strengthen the rebels’ resolve. Seeing the destruction wreaked by the international coalition, Qaddafi loyalists are unlikely to put up much opposition. Even if the strikes stopped in the course of a cease-fire, rebels would likely take advantage of Qaddafi’s weakness to try to push the remnants of his assault forces westward, reigniting the fighting.
If international action simply contained Qaddafi by halting his advance, he would be left in control of Tripolitania, the northwestern province in which Tripoli is located, leaving Cyrenaica effectively independent. The two provinces are divided by long-standing tensions. Qaddafi historically neglected the economy of Cyrenaica, because he judged the tribes in those areas to be potentially disloyal. And tensions between the two provinces were further exacerbated by Qaddafi’s attempts to play each off the other in order to stay in power. Protecting half of the country while leaving the other to Qaddafi would harden the provinces’ resolve to go their own ways. And economically speaking, that would be possible; both provinces have oil fields to rely on for revenue.
But politically speaking, such a division would be disastrous. In Tripolitania, Qaddafi would still have the resources and territory to continue to wage war against the opposition. If the brutal state terrorism Qaddafi instituted in the 1980s to secure Libya’ position in the region is any indication, he would not hesitate to do so. Even if he does observe a future cease-fire, selective containment would allow him to play a long-term cat-and-mouse game, stopping violence while surreptitiously extending his reach into the eastern part of the country by manipulating or buying such Cyrenaican tribes as the Warfalla, a powerful group that has so far adopted a cautious wait-and-see policy.
Meanwhile, the weapons that flowed through Libya’s porous borders and into the hands of Cyrenaican opposition forces during the anti-Qaddafi campaign will leave the regional tribes substantially more powerful than before. Having suffered through Qaddafi’s violence against them and then emboldened by Western intervention on their behalf, they would be ready to fight back at all cost. Thus the specter of all-out intertribal and interprovincial warfare would rise once more.
A Libya with Qaddafi in even partial control would be unacceptable to the international community; the country would be highly unstable and a real liability to North Africa and Europe. The world’s inability or unwillingness to displace an unreconstructed Qaddafi would give succor to a number of groups, including al-Qaeda, that could seize chaos in Libya and North Africa as an opportunity to extend their influence. Indeed, Qaddafi’s threat to turn the Mediterranean into a zone of instability is a reminder of precisely what a divided Libya could yield.
Internal instability aside, there is another reason why selective containment is unwise: it would severely constrain the international community’s future options. It seems inevitable that EU and U.S. efforts will successfully drive Qaddafi's forces from Benghazi. But selective containment would require them to stop there. Given Qaddafi’s rhetoric of the past few weeks, it seems unlikely that they would be able to pressure him into any kind of settlement from such a position. Further, it is improbable that, having achieved the limited objective of securing Cyrenaica relatively quickly, the United Kingdom and France, the leaders of the intervention forces, would be content to settle rather than march on to Tripoli to dislodge Qaddafi himself.
Of course, the alternative, forcing Qaddafi out of power, is fraught with its own problems and complications. Qaddafi’s departure would leave behind a political vacuum that would need filling as soon as possible. The choice of local interlocutors would be key. For all the sympathy the international community may currently feel for the opposition movement headed by the Libyan National Council, the provisional government, it would have to be cautious about unconditionally supporting it. Indeed, the threats that the LNC is already issuing should give the international community doubts about its readiness to lead in democratic government. Throughout the conflict, the LNC has threatened that there will be dire consequences for those countries in the West that had not sufficiently supported the rebel side if it won.
It is worth noting that although there is as yet no other opposition group, the LNC is national only in its aspirations. Much of Tripolitania still genuinely supports Qaddafi and would likely be resentful of whatever took his place and refuse to join an LNC-led government. To overcome antagonism between the provinces and to guide the country through the arduous process of state building and reconstruction that would follow Qaddafi’s departure, institutions would need to be truly national and representative. Since the settling of scores seems inevitable in Libya after decades of Qaddafi’s deliberate divide-and-rule policies, the international community would need to help establish a Libyan version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought political opponents in South Africa to some kind of understanding. Meanwhile, the international community would also have to steer the development of democracy and good governance in a country that has not known anything except tyranny for decades.
It is only such a process of democratization and reconstruction that would truly lessen the salience of Libya’s enduring divisions. The reintegration of Libya with its North African neighbors after decades of self-enforced isolation under Qaddafi would also help. After years of ostracism, reintegration in the region could bring some measure of pride and responsibility to Libyans.
For all of this to happen, Libya, in addition to removing Qaddafi from power, needs what Ashton called in her article a “Marshall plan for North Africa” that would help a post-Qaddafi Libya (and other countries in the region) start building their states, developing their economies, and improving democratic governance through a number of educational, economic, and political initiatives. Libya's survival as a unified country will not only depend on how its own citizens deal with its long-standing fissures but also on the careful planning of outside powers.
Unless the United States and the European Union reach a decision quickly, they may wind up in a self-imposed stalemate that Qaddafi could exploit. The international community needs a proactive agenda and a clear plan for the intervention, starting now.
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