Libya redeemed NATO; now what?
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and other NATO countries Foreign Ministers and representatives gather for a group photo in front of the Brandenburger Tor on April 14, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. (Getty Images)
August 23rd, 2011
12:29 PM ET

Libya redeemed NATO; now what?

Editor's Note: Christopher R. Hill, a former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Ambassador to Iraq and numerous other countries.He is now Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. For more from Christopher R. Hill, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

By Christopher R. Hill, Project Syndicate

While NATO probably will not want to replicate its Libya intervention anywhere else anytime soon, it appears that the alliance, with a little help from its friends, has prevailed in Libya, succeeding in toppling Col. Moammar Gadhafi. This is a good moment for NATO, but one that evokes more a sense of relief than of celebration.

Given the mismatch of member states’ policy (topple Gadhafi) and a strategy to “protect civilians” based on a contested United Nations Security Council resolution, NATO can certainly take pride in managing a great challenge and strengthening its role as the preeminent Euro-Atlantic institution.

Now, however, comes the real hard part.

Libya was not a smoothly operating country before the civil war started six months ago; today, it is thoroughly broken and will require an enormous amount of rebuilding – post-conflict operations, or “stability ops,” to use the current jargon. Libya’s needs run the gamut: Governance, institutional capacity building, economic reform and security.

As in most post-conflict countries, effective and legitimate leadership will prove hard to come by. The National Transitional Council, the governing body established in February by the various rebel groups, has functioned fairly well, given the mammoth centrifugal forces and other pressures at work. But the skills needed for leadership of a wartime governing council are very different from those needed to run a sovereign state.

Given the variety of the figures on the Council, there will be natural pressure from within Libya and beyond for a quick move to elections of some sort. The various political groupings need to discuss a timeframe for a popular vote, brief the restive international community, and finally set (and keep!) the date. But that date should be set sufficiently in the future to allow an adequate start on rebuilding political institutions and the economy.

The security and judicial system, a wasteland under Gadhafi, should be the first priority, though it is the area probably most in need of deeper, longer-term reform. One can only imagine the endemic nepotism and corruption that have traditionally characterized Libya’s police forces, but they will need to be made adequately operational quickly, probably via a new loyalty oath and some crash training. It is not ideal by any means, but allowing the streets to be policed by militias and various tribal-based groups would be far more dangerous.

What to do with the various rebel groups that “liberated” the country will probably be one of the main challenges facing any new provisional government. One can expect that NATO’s devastating airstrikes on Gadhafi’s forces will soon be forgotten in the heroic retelling of the intrepid rebel troops’ advance to Tripoli.

The sooner these forces can be decommissioned, the better. Many will probably be absorbed into Libya’s security service, but many others, one hopes, can go back to their place of origin. The sheer amount of weaponry strewn around the country will probably pose the greatest challenge to its prospects as a successful state with an effective government.

Gadhafi's armed forces were chosen on the basis of loyalty and ethnic affiliation, rather than any concept of merit, so the temptation to strip everyone to their underwear and send them home (to describe what may be the most humane of outcomes) might be great. But arguably the most important lesson learned in Iraq resulted from the almost catastrophic decision to decommission Saddam’s army without pay or pension. That move lay at the root of many of Iraq’s subsequent security problems.

Libya is fortunate is some ways. The oil sector appears to be relatively intact, and thus should contribute to government revenues relatively soon. By contrast, other countries undergoing radical change, including Egypt and Tunisia, are more dependent on the service sector, including the always-finicky tourism industry.

The international community must stand ready to assist Libya. Key decisions need to be made in close consultation with the country’s emerging leadership about which international institutions, civilian and military, should be present on the ground.

Again, NATO might be popular now, but that could change quickly. Libyans, like other Arab peoples, may turn out to hold the conflicting views that have so confused the West in Iraq: they want us there, but they also want us gone.

Governance, institution building, security, and agreeing on an international presence are daunting challenges, but probably the most worrisome aspect of post-Gadhafi Libya will be the view among Western experts that experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has given them the knowledge and the skill sets to manage all these operations.

One recalls Talleyrand’s famous aphorism on the restitution of the Bourbons – that they learned nothing and forgot nothing.

The Western countries’ collective knowledge is no substitute for a collective wisdom about Libya’s distinct history and rhythms. Gadhafi was a brutal dictator, but he gained power – and maintained his grip on it for 42 years – for a reason.

If we learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that a few years of politics, or institutional rebuilding, does not trump centuries of culture. Those centuries, not the remnants of the Gadhafi regime, are likely to be the real enemy of change in Libya.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Christopher R. Hill. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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Topics: Libya • NATO

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soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Matt

    all those that supported the uprising are occupiers to loyalist forces, the eastern presence rebels are occupiers in the west of rebels. Each tribe has it own territory and other tribe is an occupier. So before people start saying how great they are and how Baghdad was a failure because the liberators were seen as occupiers. Baghdad was far more secure more troops, a professional military with the best technology in the military world. This situation is far more dangerous than Iraq. In a tactical retreat which this was you would destroy the munition dumps, he left them and let them take the arms (chaos), which tribes seized those arms?

    Khamis has two options one let the rebels come in and then encircle them and cut them off, then launch a counter offensive, once the rebels are crushed in Tripoli then the areas that they secure and have come to Tripoli from can easily be overrun. The other option is an insurgency by fading away which they have done, now look you have negated air power by closing the gap, the UN resolution is coming up an will not be renewed and civilians death will be a reason, so Khamis gets rid of NATO air power.

    They still hold the border region to the west (logistics).

    August 23, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      @Matt, interesting thoughts. You must have fought on the battlefield!
      Libya redeemed NATO, Wishful thinking! NATO might be popular now, but it could change very quickly. In the Arab world we face a different mentality, characterised by intransigence and hubris. People can very easily feel offended.

      August 23, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  2. sjdsh


    August 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Well put, sjdsh.

      August 23, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  3. Onesmallvoice

    Exactly what did Libya redeem NATO from? NATO is nothing but a U.S. led axis of evil bent on controlling the world's wealth and so far, it has been only too successful!!!

    August 23, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  4. barf

    NATO was a defensive alliance. In no way could this be construed as defense.

    August 23, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Reply

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