It seems like the conflict in Libya will never end. If you are like me, you are probably asking yourself, “How hard can it be to find Gaddafi? How many bombs must be dropped, how many days of fighting around Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte?”
But in these questions lies the promising notion that the outcome is already easily defined: Muammar Gaddafi is the end all, be all. Caught between the hawks and doves of American foreign policy, focusing on Gaddafi is the best policy compromise available to end the war. NATO cannot afford another Afghanistan, and fortunately Libya is already structuring a post-Gaddafi government. NATO combat operations should continue until Gaddafi is captured or killed, but not a day longer.
There are three reasons for pursuing this policy. First, Libya cannot become an Afghanistan. NATO forces must have a short-term exit plan. And fortunately, Libya is no Afghanistan. Going after Gaddafi is a decisive, legal option that fits nicely inside the current paradigms of the nation-state and its supranational legal body, the UN. Afghanistan, on the other hand, created a long list of unprecedented problems without knowing how to solve them.
The U.S. and its allies initiated a nebulous war against a sort-of-known enemy (terrorism) in a country without a functioning government. In Libya, Gaddafi is both the enemy and the government.
Moreover, the greatest threat to the Libyan people was Gaddafi himself. After what seems like months of endless conflict, it is easy to forget the original impetus for NATO intervention in Libya. Last February, Gaddafi sent his own police and military forces to kill, beat, and torture his own people. Aid groups warned of the possibility of mass killings. Western leaders contemplated a military intervention fearing another Bosnia.
Second, the downfall of Gaddafi would signal the absolute collapse of the old regime. Dictators stay in power by rewarding a small, loyal cohort with close access to the leader. Libya’s pro-Gaddafi cohort will quickly dissolve if the former Libyan leader is captured or killed. A large number of defections have already occurred. However, if Gaddafi is able to weather the storm, survive, and maintain power, he could come back with more influence than before. Gaddafi would capitalize on his near-martyrdom to consolidate his powers, punish his foes, and reward his friends. The NATO alliance cannot afford to risk this outcome.
Lastly, the post-Gaddafi political structures are mostly settled. Already a Transitional National Council has taken over half the country, organized a functioning government, sought out international aid, and brought back leading Libyan expat intellectuals to fill key government posts. The TNC has already gone to the UN and been officially recognized. In this regard, Libya is far ahead of its Arab peers who were also caught up in the political whirlwind of the past year. With Gaddafi cornered and politically impotent, Libyans are starting to stand up on their own.
I am confident that Gaddafi will meet his end if NATO forces maintain their resolve. What is less certain is whether Libya can successfully transition to democratic governance. If the government reverts back to cronyism, autocracy, corruption, and fraud, then there is not much that the West can do, nor should it. Foreign and domestic actors need to realize the limits of intervention. The West staved off the worst. Now Libya can take control of its own political fate.
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