August 22nd, 2011
06:34 PM ET

Libya victory celebrations are premature

Editor's Note: Dr. James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of "America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy." Visit his blog here and follow him on Twitter.

By James M. Lindsay - Special to CNN

Libyans have taken to the streets to celebrate the impending end of Moammar Gadhafi’s forty-two year rule. These celebrations are as understandable as they are premature. The tyrant is leaving, but who or what replaces him remains to be decided.

Washington knows what it wants next in Libya: a stable, preferably democratic government that exercises effective control over all its territory. A politically and economically successful Libya could be a model for the rest of the Arab world.

But success in Libya is not guaranteed. The Libyan rebels agreed that Gadhafi had to go. They don’t necessarily agree on who or what should replace him.

Gadhafi undermined every institution that might threaten his rule, which means that the rebels will be building Libya’s new political system from scratch. Tribal, regional and class divisions could easily derail these efforts.

The nightmare outcome is a Libya that collapses into anarchy. It would become a breeding ground for criminals and terrorists. Al Qaeda and its affiliates gravitate to countries that have weak, ineffective governments.

The next month will go a long way toward determining whether Libya  succeeds or fails. Making sure that food and other basic necessities reach Libyans in need will be critical to establishing the credibility of the rebels’ Transitional National Council (TNC).

Preventing the breakdown of law and order will be equally important. The lawlessness that gripped Baghdad in the weeks immediately following Saddam Hussein’s ouster helped set the stage for the insurgency that followed. If Tripoli can avoid a similar fate, Libya stands a fighting chance of making the most of its new-found freedom.

Continued violence in Libya could come from several sources. Gadhafi loyalists might continue fighting. Rival rebel militias might square off against each other. Revenge killings could spur a cycle of escalating violence.

So what are the White House’s next steps? The White House has pledged humanitarian assistance. Direct U.S. military intervention, however, is off the table. Neither the administration nor the American people has much interest in putting American boots on the ground in yet another country.

What might the administration do instead to keep violence in Libya in check? There are two basic choices:

1. Leave it to the Libyans. NATO bombing was essential to breaking Gadhafi’s hold on power, but it was the Libyan people who fought and risked their lives on the ground. The United States and NATO could continue to advise and support the TNC on political reconciliation and economic reconstruction, but otherwise stay out of the way.

2. Champion an International Peacekeeping Force for Libya. Such a force could range from a few hundred paramilitary police officers to several thousand military troops. The police and.or troops could come from Europe or elsewhere in the Middle East. Their goal would be to keep the peace in Tripoli and other pro-Gadhafi strongholds and oversee a general disarmament. Such a force might stay only a few months or perhaps longer depending on the conditions.

President Obama said nothing in his address today about the role that peacekeepers might play in Libya. So for it looks for now that he prefers leaving matters in the hands of the Libyans.

But that calculation could change quickly if the TNC fails to establish control. The question then will be whether the peacekeepers that do go in get there in time to save Libya from a nightmare outcome.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of James M. Lindsay.

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Topics: Libya

soundoff (175 Responses)
  1. jackson

    Mr. Lindsey:

    We the people have experienced the Republican gift known as the Iraq War or as I refer to it, the Illegal Debt War. I digress. We by virtue of Iraq know all the negatives that can arise. We are not idiots.

    The next article you write should be all the positive things that could happen in libya. For example, it is quite possible he rebels and tribes will agree that an end to violence is necessary being they have all been victims of it. Maybe, just maybe, they will band together in a loose congress and agree upon a government of their free choosing.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  2. Faouzi

    Let me tell you as a Libyan my perspective of what I think should happen. At the moment everyone is armed to the teeth, and law and order has to be restored, but everyone is happy and in a brotherly atmosphere which is great , however a organized force needs to help either uniformed Libyans or UN blue hats, and every person especially the young guys that made this revolution , every Libyan should be included then the best minds will shine out of society to lead this new great nation "the new Free Libya", I'm sure everyone wants to start to help the problem is there is no organized guidance. All the young fellows are quote "on patrol" or "sweeping the area" I found it halarious how everyone is involved , but I say again there must be organization so it doesn't become pandimoniom!! God bless her after what she's indured for 42 dam bloody years. The new Government should use state TV calling on the best from each field and give people the chance to go back to work and help.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  3. Chadrock

    Anyone else watching the report about the journalists who were held captive? Strange that you would go to a foreign country to do a job, get too close to the action, be surprised that you were captured by a dictatorial government for five days and then have the cahunas to report about it for a half hour.

    If you're a journalist (and I have been one), the story is NOT about you. I'm turning the TV off.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  4. riffraf002

    Iraq Afganistan both have oil and gas, Libya has oil that Europe wants this is the real reason that United States , NATO , and Israel all have troops helping the Rebels who some are open members of Islamic terrorist plus some former supporters of the king that was removed in a coupe years ago we have destroyed another nation in Africa this is not the middleEast it is Africa black Libyans and other Africans are being murdered because they supported the goverment who gave them jobs. This will only lead to years of war just like Iraq and Afganistan plus all those weapons will get in the hands of Islamic terrorists and kill people in Europe Israel and the United States thanks Obama more death and our economic situation is getting worse not better in United States and England.

    August 25, 2011 at 7:19 am | Reply
  5. tryecrot

    Yes there should realize the opportunity to RSS commentary, quite simply, CMS is another on the blog.

    August 28, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
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