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April 21, 2011

Running Things...It Ain't All Gravy
Posted by Eric Martin

This Frederic Wehrey piece in Foreign Affairs explores some of the cleavages and divisions in Libya's population/power structures that could come to the fore if and when the Qaddafi regime is toppled - as well as some of the challenges in rebuilding (or building anew) a society left dilapidated by years of inept dictatorial rule:

After Libyans, and much of the civilized world, rejoice in the seemingly inevitable fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country will face the difficult task of repairing a society long traumatized by the Middle East's most Orwellian regime. Libya lacks both legitimate formal institutions and a functioning civil society. The new, post-Qaddafi era, therefore, is likely to be marked by the emergence of long-suppressed domestic groups jostling for supremacy in what is sure to be a chaotic political scene. 

In the near future, even with Qaddafi gone, the country may face a continued contest between the forces of a free Libya and the regime's die-hard elements. In particular, Qaddafi's sons -- Saif al-Islam, Khamis, Al-Saadi, and Mutassim -- and their affiliated militias may not go quietly into the night; the struggle to root them out may be violent and protracted...

Lined up against these Qaddafi holdouts are the members of the Libyan military and officer corps who have joined the opposition. [...]

Libya's tribes will also be critical for governance and reconciliation. Qaddafi's 1969 coup overturned the traditional dominance of the eastern coastal tribes in Cyrenaica in favor of those drawn from the west and the country's interior. Although the Qaddafi regime was, at least in theory, opposed to tribal identity, its longevity depended in large measure on a shaky coalition among three principal tribes: the al-Qaddadfa, al-Magariha, and al-Warfalla. [...]  

In the post-Qaddafi era, the recently defected tribal bulwarks of the ancien régime -- the al-Magariha and the al-Warfalla -- will play a critical role in lending legitimacy and unity to a new government. That said, the weakness and fragmentation of the military and the tempting availability of oil resources highlight the very real threat of tribal warlordism.

In a prior post, I raised the all-too-possible specter that the aftermath of Qaddafi's ouster could give rise to (or perpetuate) internecine conflict that would require policing by international forces and/or a prolonged nation building effort in order to avoid a massive conflagration.  Wehrey's piece highlights some of the fault lines along which such conflicts could erupt. 

While it is possible that Libya could undergo a smooth, relatively violence-free transition to stable governance, we cannot afford to plan based on best-case-scenario assumptions. Though this is no great insight, it remains true: wars, revolutions and lesser armed conflicts are notoriously unpredictable. 

Considering the enormously expensive, long-term, resource-intensive nation building/policing efforts that the United States is currently undertaking in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would be beyond imprudent to risk getting embroiled in yet another such enterprise at this juncture. Which is why my reaction to the possibilities discussed in this piece in the Small Wars Journal was more of hopeful relief than concern:  

Let’s make something clear, the civil war in Libya will not end in a stalemate. The French will likely intervene with ground forces and topple the Gaddafi regime, and they will probably do it within a month. It is quite possible that they will do so with Italian help. President Obama has fervently wished for America to be just one of the boys; in the end, this may be a case of wishing for something so much that you get it. America has abrogated the role of global marshal that it assumed after World War II. Every posse needs a Marshal to lead it. The French will likely pick up the tin star they found lying in the street of the global village. [...]

None of this is to say that the French may not be walking into a situation similar to that we faced in 2004-6 in Iraq when Iraqi factions fought over the remains of their country and the more radical factions turned on their would-be Coalition Force liberators. Libya will likely be a mess for years to come. However, I am suggesting that the U.S. will not be calling the shots if the French intervene decisively, and we should think about if that is what we really want. [emphasis added]

A situation in which France, rather than the United States, takes the lead in managing a potentially chaotic, conflict riddled, post-regime-change environment in a foreign country (that we remain largely ignorant of on a granular level) sounds like something that we should not only "want," but strongly encourage.  While ceding the lead role does have its drawbacks in terms of prerogatives and priorities, we quite simply do not have the resources to lead the "posse" in every global conflict that we choose to intervene in - especially at a time when we are already leading the pack in two other theaters.

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