Journal of Foreign Relations column -
After sustained NATO bombing of Libya for five months, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s rule is over. The fall of Gaddafi will be a welcome event to many, but Libya is no Tunisia or Egypt. Unlike Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the collapse of Gaddafi’s dictatorship is a result of massive military intervention. Two points should be made at the outset. Libya is the second oil-rich state after Iraq to be a target of U.S.-led intervention since 2003. A small country of just over six million people, Libya is also endowed with vast high-quality oil reserves. Assuming authorization to “protect civilians” under a United Nations Security Council resolution in March, NATO flew nearly 20,000 missions over Libya, including 7,500 bombing missions. NATO air power imposed a no-fly zone, and destroyed much of Gaddafi’s air force, tanks, armored vehicles and heavy artillery in the initial phase of its operations.
British, French and Italian special forces were deployed as “advisers” in Libya, although foreign forces were forbidden under the Security Council resolution. NATO played a big role in helping the rebels storm Tripoli. Then, British and French took on the job of guiding anti-Gaddafi fighters toward Sirte, his birthplace and last major stronghold. To insist, as NATO did, that regime change was not its objective is far from the truth. The international community, within the United Nations and without, did not have the appetite to send a peacekeeping force while the no-fly zone was enforced.
According to the most trustworthy data available, nearly 13,000 military personnel across 18 countries were involved in the operation, including 8,000 Americans. The weight of the conflict also fell upon Britain, France, Italy and Canada, leading Western allies in America’s militaristic foreign policy project, as well as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. British Prime Minister David Cameron was a leading advocate of intervention in Libya. He, with President Sarkozy and President Obama, will have to carry the responsibility for what happens in that country. Already, there are powerful critics of the path Cameron has chosen, not unlike that of his recent predecessor, Tony Blair, with George W. Bush.
As the Transitional National Council representing anti-Gaddafi forces issued statements about new Libya’s constitutional shape, acts of looting were taking place in Tripoli, including Gaddafi’s compound. Men were helping themselves with guns and reports of insecurity were emerging. Channel 4 News correspondent Alex Thomson’s account from Tripoli’s main hospital and mortuary gave a taste of things. Reports of revenge killings, acts of kidnapping and intimidation of foreigners abound.
In a country known for some of the best medical treatment facilities, hospitals were full of wounded people. Shortages of food, water, fuel and medicines were acute and there were electricity blackouts. It all reminded of Baghdad in 2003. The risk of the Libyan armed forces disintegrating must be high. The military and security services personnel, who fought on Gaddafi’s side to the bitter end, and did not defect, owed everything to him. For them, defection to the anti-Gaddafi camp is not a safe option.
At this point, it is important to note that many in the Transitional National Council are Gaddafi’s ex-apparatchiks, including its leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who was his justice minister until a few months ago. Another prominent figure, Mahmoud Jibril, a U.S.-trained political scientist, was head of the National Economic Development Board in the Gaddafi regime before his defection. Western allies of the new power elite in Libya face an acute dilemma. To what extent will the culture of Gaddafi’s successors be different? Will they be able to control the instinct for revenge and appreciate the difference between justice and vengeance? Will they be effective in restoring order in a country in which people are now extremely heavily armed? Will they unite Libyans?
Despite the TNC’s claims of unity, Libya is a very diverse, and now deeply split, country – a sparsely populated vast desert land. It has tribes; ethnic Arabs, Berbers and smaller African minorities, Tuareg and Tebu nomads; and opposing ideologies: Islamism, nationalism and Gaddafi’s own brand of Arab socialism, though its time must surely be at an end. The celebratory mood in western capitals must not be allowed to overshadow a sense of foreboding and a desperate desire for a return to some sort of order. A failure of the Libya project is unlikely to absolve Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama of their responsibility by claiming that there were no foreign troops on the ground in that country.