Libya: What the Intervention Has Wrought

Neoconservatives, liberal internationalists, and "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) advocates were, all in separate ways, pleased to see their programs enacted. Yet none of the above parties will suffer the consequences of what they enabled, from afar, in Libya.
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Libya's current politics offer two lessons -- ones we really shouldn't have to learn yet again. First, military interventions that topple repressive regimes invariably offer occasions to observe, though at others' expense, the law of unintended consequences. Second, the constituencies that clamor for such campaigns move quickly to other matters once those malign consequences become manifest.

The defenders of the Libyan intervention claim that the March 17 UN Security Council resolution authorized a no-flight zone in the face of imminent mass atrocities. But by now, no one seriously disputes that the assignment soon metamorphosed, allowing NATO and a few Persian Gulf states to take sides in a civil conflict, and in ways -- targeting Mu'ammar Gaddafi's forces, equipping and training the armed resistance, and even dispatching special forces -- that proved decisive.

NATO got a virtually risk-free opportunity to demonstrate that it still has a reason for being despite the Soviet Union's demise (never mind that the alliance's various "out-of-area" operations have divided rather than unified an organization that is becoming ever more anachronistic). Saudi Arabia (which has an abysmal human rights record and sent troops into Bahrain in mid-March to help a Sunni monarchy that oppresses the country's Shi'a majority to survive a popular revolt) and the other Persian Gulf kingdoms got a chance to off Gaddafi, whom they despised as a parvenu and a radical. Neoconservatives, liberal internationalists, and "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) advocates were, all in separate ways, pleased to see their programs enacted.

Yet none of the above parties will suffer the consequences of what they enabled, from afar, in Libya. And if things go from bad to worse, they will doubtless say that Libyans were given a chance to start anew, but that they blew it... perhaps they just weren't ready for democracy after all. The interventionists' eagerness for military action stands in contrast to their minimal interest in perils of post-Gaddafi Libya.

A victory of the spontaneous grass-roots rebellion that was centered initially in the east (Cyrenaica, Libya east of Sirte) and then spread to the west (Tripolitania), with the then Benghazi-based National Transitional Council (TNC) serving as its international face, has begotten chaos. A multitude of local militias fought during the war as independent units. Now the most powerful, from Misrata, Zawiya, and Zintan, have in effect become statelets. They refuse to relinquish their arms or obey the government and engage in regular skirmishes. The TNC, unelected, provisional, institutionally hollow, is powerless to demobilize these armed bands and to meld them into a national military, which exists in form but has little substance given the militias' firepower.

Political divisions run deep. Islamists (themselves disunited) and secularists hold divergent views on Libya's future. Some dissidents who were jailed and tortured in Gaddafi's dungeons scorn the expatriates who have entered the TNC and other fledgling institutions as deracinated arrivistes. The Amazigh (Berbers), the descendents of those who inhabited what is now Libya before the 7th century Arab-Muslim conquests, are determined that an Arab-dominated central government will never again suppress their culture and language (Tamazight) and, given the western militias' might, have the guns to defend their rights.

The most ominous divide is regional and pits proponents of a unitary polity against those who want, at most, a federal one. In early March, a "Congress of the People of Cyrenaica" convened in Benghazi and declared that eastern Libya would become the autonomous region of Barqa, with a parliament and "Supreme Military Council." Just like that: no negotiations with the TNC, no waiting for the constitutional and electoral process to unfold. Cyrenaica contains two-thirds of Libya's oil and two largest fields (Mesala and Saraya), and nationalists are not mollified by eastern assurances that autonomy won't be a pathway to partition or by reminders that Libya was a federation (constituted by Cyrenaica and Tripolitania and Fezzan in the southwest) from 1951 to 1963. Perhaps the only reason Cyrenaica's gambit hasn't triggered a conflict is that the Tripolitania is a patchwork of militias and the TNC toothless.

Libya's upheaval has already reached beyond its borders. Mali's long-running war with secessionist Tuareg tribesmen in its north intensified once Gaddafi fell. Gadddafi used the Tuaregs, who are concentrated in Mali and Niger but who also inhabit southwest Libya (among other places), as mercenaries. Arms from his looted arsenal, and Tuareg fighters fleeing Libya, entered Mali, strengthening the insurgents. The Malian army was outgunned and battered. The discontent coursed through its ranks, precipitating a coup against a democracy that had been in place since 1992, just as the country was preparing for elections. The Tuareg forces have overrun major cities in northern Mali -- most recently ancient Timbuktu -- and refugees have been streaming into Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger by the thousands.

Those who favor interventions against murderous regimes have an obligation, moral and strategic, to consider some basic questions beforehand: What problems might follow the dictator's demise? What plans are needed to address them? Who will pay for their implementation -- and get involved on the ground if necessary? Is the zeal for intervention matched by a commitment to bear the burden of helping the successor government -- for what could be many years?

Evidently, neither those who called for or carried out the intervention in Libya pondered these issues seriously, or perhaps at all. The Libyans and their neighbors must now pay for that failure.

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