West may not have the will or finances to rebuild Libya
There was palpable relief in Western capitals on Monday at the news that Libyan rebel forces had swept into Tripoli, and that the regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi appeared to be on the ropes. But the less-than-euphoric tone with which European and US leaders welcomed Sunday's events suggested that their relief was tempered with trepidation over what may follow.
A rebel victory came not a moment too soon for Western leaders, with Nato's air campaign nearing the limits of what the European powers running it could sustain, particularly in light of grim economic tidings on the home front.
But in one respect, it may also have come too soon: the anxiety in the West derives from the fact that while the US, European and Arab governments may have recognised the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council (NTC) as the sole legitimate government of Libya, it's far from clear that most Libyans do. Many of those who took up arms against Col Qaddafi have signalled that they don't necessarily follow orders from Benghazi.
Indeed, international recognition of the NTC as Libya's government was not unlike the Nobel committee's decision to award its 2009 Peace Prize to President Barack Obama: an expression of hope and a down-payment of trust, rather than an acknowledgement of achievement.
The NTC has yet to prove itself a viable steward of an inevitably messy transition. And the problem for the Western powers whose interventions enabled the rebels' march on Tripoli is that it won't be easy to walk away from its consequences. While hailing the Libyan rebels for owning their own liberation, Britain, France, the US and the Arab League have told Libyans that the NTC is their true government. That effectively gives these countries some responsibility about how the NTC rules.
Multiple perils threaten the Libyan transition, from the immediate security and humanitarian crises to the potential for Libya breaking up or devolving into a new civil war, threatening Western interests, prompting mass migration or creating a Yemen-like environment for international jihadists. Analyst Daniel Serwer of the Council on Foreign Relations recently offered US leaders a sobering picture of the rebel political leadership: The NTC, he wrote, "is a hodgepodge of former regime loyalists (civilian and military), liberal democrats, Islamists, expatriates, Berbers (Imazighen), various tribes, and jihadis.
"They are united mainly in wanting Qaddafi gone ... It is not clear whether the NTC will be received well, even among anti-Qaddafi militants, in Tripoli."
The murder just three weeks ago of the rebel military chief, Gen Muhammad Fatah Younes, by a rival rebel faction, and the subsequent tribal discord within the NTC, were an ill omen. The rebel forces which stormed in to Tripoli on Sunday were mostly from western Libya, where the insurgents have told many Western reporters that they don't take orders from Benghazi.
Those who fought for their freedom may well expect a share of the liberation dividend, while Libya may suffer the traditional post-liberation tension that arises when well-qualified technocrats returning from exile land plumb jobs, breeding resentment among those who did the actual fighting.
Col Qaddafi's Libya was built on his personality cult and careful manipulation of tribal patronage. The prize is control over oil revenues, and oil and democracy have seldom made a compatible marriage.
Nato countries would be well placed to help Libyans face some of the immediate challenges of restoring security on Tripoli's streets, avoiding a humanitarian breakdown, and restoring electricity, water and food supplies - and also longer-term economic restructuring. Oil wealth can allow Libya to finance its own development in the long term, and Arab states that backed intervention can be asked to help finance the transition.
But the most important challenge is to forge a new national consensus that integrates not only the various rebel and tribal factions from western and southern Libya, but also Gaddafi's own popular support. Iraq's insurgency is a grim lesson in the consequences of failing to give the support base of the old regime a stake in the new.
Many regime supporters are still armed - a lot of Qaddafi forces simply melted away rather than offer resistance when the rebels pressed into Tripoli. They will have to be disarmed quickly, which will be more effectively accomplished politically rather than militarily, by giving them a clear stake in building a post-Qaddafi order.
There are plenty of mistakes waiting to be made in rebuilding Libya. The question is to what extent can the western powers allow the NTC leadership, which, in truth, hasn't been elected by anyone, to make them? The Nato countries desperately need Libyans to own the transition, and they have precious little appetite for a long-term nation-building project. But nor can Nato really afford to allow their Libyan proteges to mess things up to the point that Libya becomes a debacle.
The transition in Libya will require many more months than Nato's air campaign has done, and a situation replete with perils might well require a direct policing role by outside powers.
Western leaders would love to see Arab countries or Turkey take the lead. But there are few Arab countries with experience in building democratic institutions, and those that are trying have their hands full. Even Turkey, with its more established democracy and the second largest army in Nato, is consumed with the catastrophe next door in Syria, and its own war against Kurdish separatists.
So, what may be haunting Nato leaders as they watch the Qaddafi regime fall is what Colin Powell called the Pottery Barn rule: "You break it, you own it." Indeed, that holds even if you broke it from 10,000 feet up in the air.
Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @tonykaron
Published: August 24, 2011 04:00 AM