After the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, we in the West congratulated ourselves on a job well done, promised Tripoli a bright democratic future, and then forgot about the North African country as Libya promptly fell off the radar of mainstream international news.
Nearly a year after the conclusion of major hostilities in Libya, things are not looking so good: the first half of 2012 has been marked by continuous infighting between various militias in Libya, exemplified just last week when Tripoli’s main airport was seized in broad daylight by a roving militia.
In other words, the transitional government is seemingly unable to control the territory to whose charge it was bequeathed following Gaddafi’s death. This is an important point, because it shows that the West clearly did not do its homework very well following its experiences in Iraq. While the door to former Gaddafists was not closed and the security forces were not dismantled, the ignorance demonstrated in the creation of the Transitional National Council is played out in the ongoing violence and the council's chronic inability to exercise authority. We must recognize that Gaddafi was in power for 40 years, and to do that, he was by no means stupid or irrational. So why did he have to die?
Gaddafi was able to do three key things that are currently lost on the Libyan leadership: maintain the political integrity of an ethnically diverse country, conduct a relatively independent foreign policy, and negotiate a tough neighborhood of several nearby superpowers for four decades. While the means are debatable, these were undeniable characteristics of Gaddafi's regime, and should be the objectives of the transitional government, even if the methods are to be different.
It isn’t possible to say if conflict in Libya would have taken on the intensity and proportions of the violence in Syria, had an intervention not happened. That said, a poignant example comes from the transition plan proposed by Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi in April 2011, shortly after the beginning of hostilities on March 19, 2011 -- his plan exists in a manner similar to Kofi Annan’s plan for Syria that the international community is ineffectually trying to implement.
The main difference is that Gaddafi was in relatively good standing with the West when compared with Assad, and a gradual transition would have most likely worked in Libya. Put differently, the gradual exit of the Gaddafi family from power might have prepared the country better for democracy, rather than having the current situation. It shows that Gaddafi had an appreciation for a simple truth about politics: all regimes end and need to be replaced.
With elections being postponed until July 7, the question is what the political landscape will be post-factum. If on July 8 we wake up to an Islamist government in Tripoli, as per the trend of the Arab Spring, we must ask what it will look like: Iran’s paper democracy in a theocracy, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabian absolutism, or Somali-esque chaos? None of these alternatives look very appealing within the context of uncertain central political authority and ongoing clashes all over Libya. While all this is going on, the political disintegration of the country along its traditional component regions remains a very real threat. Libya’s political future and its relations with the West, remain far from predictable despite the influence gained from NATO’s intervention, the access of oil firms to Libyan fields, and the loss of Russian influence in Libya. In fact, we may see a reorientation of Libya to its Muslim brethren in the East and away from Europe.
Perhaps in trying to understand the rationale for the status quo in Libya as a basis for a “democratic” transition, when a better alternative to that end was available, we are asking the wrong questions. It is traditional of Western foreign policy to make enemies of one-time allies, and Gaddafi was on both sides of the fence repeatedly over the decades he was in power.
Simply put, the question we should be asking about why Libya is in the shape it is in, in light of better alternatives, is this: what if Gaddafi had decided to finally write his memoirs, what would he have said? Being close to generations of Western leaders means that Gaddafi was privy to sensitive information about international politics in the closing decades of the Cold War, and the predominance of the West in the 20 years since. The democratic ideals espoused by the West, might be soured if Gaddafi had ever made his knowledge public – he probably knew of everything from financing the campaigns of failed French presidents, the love-hate relationships with Western powers and the accompanying arms deals, and the $60 billion sovereign fund created shortly before the unrest began and the intervention took place -- something we have not heard news about since. Simply put, Gaddafi was taken out for what he knew and his non-conformist foreign policy, not for any democratic ideals or the particular plights of the Libyan people. The result is the uncertainty coming for Libya.
When the archives about this operation are opened in 60-70 years in Paris, London, and Washington, Libya likely won’t be any more democratic than it is now. By then we will have a fuller perspective on two core things: why Gaddafi, and why in 2011?