Beyond NATO’s Libyan redemption

The real test for NATO is to achieve a successful, politically stable regime with enduring peace.

Libyan citizens hold a Kingdom of Libya flag as they attend the Arab league meeting in its headquarters in Cairo.

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. Muammar Gaddafi. 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 Gaddafi) 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 pre-eminent 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 Gaddafi, 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 characterised 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 Gaddafi’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.

Gaddafi’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-Gaddafi 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. Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi regime, are likely to be the real enemy of change in Libya.

Christopher R. Hill, a former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is now Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.