With the fall of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in sight, the United States and its allies face the familiar challenges of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction. As in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have prevailed militarily and Western governments must now assume some role in helping establish a new order. Given the mixed results of the ventures in those regions, it is worth examining how Libya compares to them in terms of size, wealth, homogeneity, geography, and political maturity.

Nation building is resource-intensive, and the size of the country is a major determinant of the scale of the effort needed. Libya is between two and three times more populous than Bosnia and Kosovo, but less than one third the size of Iraq and Afghanistan, suggesting that the reconstruction effort in Libya would fall somewhere between the operations in the Balkans in the 1990s and the more demanding efforts after 9/11 in terms of cost, time, and difficulty.

Libya is, however, richer than Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with a prewar per capita income of over $14,000 per year. War and sanctions did not devastate its economy as much as they did the other four. Libya, therefore, should return to prewar levels of economic activity more quickly than the others.

Libya is also more homogenous in terms of ethnicity, language, and religion than any of the other four societies. It does have a minority of Berber (Amazigh) speakers, who make up about ten percent of the population and are largely concentrated in the west and south. Although this group has agitated for greater cultural and linguistic autonomy, it has never called for secession. The rebel leadership, which is based in the east, also appears to be attuned to tensions between the long-marginalized province of Cyrenaica and the historically pro-Qaddafi areas of Tripolitania. By coordinating and cooperating with fighters in Libya's western mountains, it has sought to ensure that the liberation of Tripoli is perceived as broad-based, not simply as an invasion from the east. Libya's tribes will be key players in the new order, but their political power was in many respects artificially inflated by Qaddafi's divide-and-rule policies.  At any rate, if competition arises in the post-Qaddafi era between Libya's regions, tribes, and ethnic groups, it will be over the distribution of power and resources, as in Afghanistan, not over the more intractable issue of national identity, as in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq.

There are important geographical differences as well. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan are all landlocked countries with hostile neighbors who attempted to undermine the reconstruction of the state. Iraq was nearly landlocked, and had equally unhelpful neighbors. Libya, by contrast, is highly accessible to outside countries, and its neighbors have neither the motive nor the capability to foil the country's rehabilitation.

All these factors suggest that post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction will be easier in Libya than in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Three other, less favorable conditions, however, might diminish Libya's prospects.

First, although Libya is more economically advanced -- or at least more prosperous -- than the other countries, it is also more politically backward than all but Afghanistan. Having moved from Fascist Italian colonialism to one-man rule, with a brief period of constitutional monarchy in between, Libya has little experience with participatory politics.

Second, there are no Western forces on the ground to help establish reasonable security so that economic and political reconstruction can go forward. The presence of such forces was essential to consolidating peace in Bosnia and Kosovo. The early inadequacy of ground support in Afghanistan and Iraq allowed seemingly clear-cut victories to mutate into renewed conflict as resistance movements organized, recruited, and took up arms.

Third, there is no international actor to coordinate a collective reconstruction program. U.S. President Barack Obama has wisely limited the American role, in part because of the United States' other commitments and its low standing with most Arab publics. But there is no other power of comparable weight and influence to take charge.

In Libya, as in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the West has ensured a sweeping victory, itself employing air power alone, suffering virtually no casualties in the process. History suggests that this is the easy part. If Libya is to have a chance of replacing Qaddafi with something better, the United States, its allies, and the rest of the international community will need to pivot very quickly from the rather straightforward requirements of war fighting to taking seriously the complex and demanding tasks of peace building.

Security should be the first priority. The United States' experience in Iraq shows that a critical window exists for the rebel leadership to establish its legitimacy, win the trust of the Libyan people, and prevent the onset of looting, vendettas, and warlordism. Societies emerging from conflict invariably have too many soldiers and too few police. The international community must help Libya quickly demobilize the combatants on both sides of the conflict and build a competent police force. Much will also hinge on the swift but magnanimous application of justice, which should emphasize reconciliation rather than retribution.

The United States can assist these efforts by establishing an office of security cooperation in Libya, through which it would offer training programs focused on civil-military relations and rule of law. But the effort must be broad-based and involve those with the greatest stakes in a stable, prosperous Libya -- the EU and the Arab League. Unlike the campaign in Iraq, the one in Libya enjoys pan-Arab legitimacy. Arab states, therefore, should form the backbone of the effort. Should fighting break out among elements of the former rebel coalition, however, international peacekeepers, probably under United Nations command, would need to step in. The United States should be ready to enable, but probably not participate heavily in such an effort.

Developing representative institutions is the second most pressing task. Here, the international community should be cognizant of how well-intentioned economic aid can inadvertently promote a country's drift back toward authoritarianism. Currently, the National Transitional Council, the rebel government based in Benghazi, is the only executive governing body up and operating. As its name suggests, it is ultimately temporary. Any outside economic and technical aid to the NTC must therefore be focused on encouraging the development of local governing structures, municipal councils, civil society, and a culture of representative politics. The fact that this is already occurring in some areas under NTC control is grounds for guarded optimism. The real litmus test, of course, will be whether the NTC can implement its ambitious 37-point constitution, which calls for the creation of an elected national assembly within 20 months.

Underpinning all of these efforts should be a sober recognition of how quickly the narrative of national liberation can sour in the face of day-to-day insecurity and economic deprivation. Avoiding this fate will require the Libyan people to translate the euphoria of their recent gains into patience and steadfastness in the months and years ahead. For its part, the United States and the international community must apply the lessons of past reconstruction efforts tempering its expectations for rapid progress and responding to local needs while avoiding the impulse for unwanted intervention. Libya's limited size, favorable location, relative wealth, and homogeneous population should help ease a transition to peace and democracy, but absence of both government institutions and an established civil society suggest that the road may nevertheless be long and rocky.

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  • JAMES DOBBINS, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. FREDERIC WEHREY is a senior policy analyst at RAND.
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