James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda.
You may recall the last time the United States and its allies used military force to overthrow a hated Arab dictator. The resulting vacuum was quickly filled by anarchic looting, murderous rivalries and, ultimately, civil war. The blitheness of President George W. Bush's administration towards post-war Iraq was quite possibly the most inexcusable blunder in the history of American foreign policy. It's a mistake we wouldn't want to make again. That's why Lisa Anderson, one of the very few American scholarly experts on modern Libya and president of American University in Cairo, recently wrote that "Any military and diplomatic intervention that will bring an end to the Gadhafi regime should be accompanied, from the beginning, by mobilization of the resources for political reconstruction."
That does sound like a good idea. But it's not happening. A senior official in President Barack Obama's administration says that the situation in Libya is "much too fluid," and the identity of the rebel leadership much too uncertain, to permit serious planning about a post-Moammar Gadhafi world, should the rebels actually seize power. The White House is, to be fair, a bit preoccupied, what with organizing the no-fly zone, trying to stave off chaos in Yemen and Bahrain, and attempting to assist a soft landing in Egypt and Tunisia. Most of those countries, as this official says, are of greater strategic significance to the United States than Libya is. And there is, of course, the all too real possibility that the military intervention will produce a stalemate rather than a decisive rebel victory, in which case any such planning would be moot.
The good news is that Libya is not Iraq. The country's tribal divisions should not prove as insuperable an obstacle to national unity as Iraq's Shia-Sunni-Kurd divide. And should the rebels somehow overthrow Gadhafi, they will have the legitimacy which comes of winning an insurgency, as the Iraqis placed on the throne by U.S. power did not.
But one of the fundamental lessons of Iraq is that things will be worse than you think. Not only does war unleash all manner of latent enmity and violence, but decades of abusive treatment by a ruthless dictators fuels pathologies that only fully manifest themselves when the lid of control pops off. Pro- and anti-Gadhafi tribes could square off against one another; Gadhafi could unleash the jihadists he once trained to wreak violence both at home and abroad. So you wouldn't want to bet on a happy outcome in Libya — you'd want to do whatever you could to help deliver one. And it behooves those of us who have argued for the intervention now under way to give serious thought to what form that help should take.
The United States will not be the occupying power in Libya as it was in Iraq, and thus will have far less leverage, and far less responsibility. The Libyans will be calling the shots. But thanks to Gadhafi's malevolently whimsical vision of a nation without a state or state institutions, whoever inherits the country will need an enormous amount of outside help.
Larry Diamond, a Stanford scholar who served with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and was a leading advocate for intervention in Libya, says that the most directly relevant lesson of Iraq — and of Afghanistan, for that matter — is "security trumps everything." People won't accept a new political order if they may pay with their lives for doing so. It's impossible to know right now where those threats may come from. But since Libya will have no foreign troops to stop looting or score-settling, the United States or others will have to train Libyan forces in what Diamond calls "democratic policing."
Diamond's larger point is that, for all the unique problems Libya will present, it is possible to start planning now, while the war is still raging, to deal with them. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, the U.S. State Department convened regional experts and emigres into a series of working groups known collectively as the Future of Iraq Project. This vast body of work — admittedly of varying utility — was simply discarded when the Pentagon took over the post-war planning. Diamond suggests a similar planning exercise for Libya, with working groups on key post-conflict issues like transitional justice and civic administration as well as security and policing.
Other veterans of Iraq are wary of such methodical exercises. Barbara Bodine, a seasoned diplomat who served as administrator of Baghdad and central Iraq in the first months after the war, says that many of the lessons she learned there, including "don't fire the whole bureaucracy," and "don't fire the army," may not apply to Libya. What is relevant, she said, is the endemic failure of political understanding. "We don't know enough to engage in social engineering." Bodine said. The Iraqi emigres whom the U.S. backed in the months before the war, like Ahmad Chalabi, proved to be a great deal less public-spirited and nonsectarian than they claimed to be. And while the Libyan rebels' "transitional government" is currently headed up by former senior government civil servants and technocrats, a very different group may rise to the fore should the rebels finally succeed — or should the civil war turn into a protracted slog, as seems all too likely.
Encouraging local capacity is thus more important than devising and importing elaborate solutions. The key lesson, Bodine concludes, is, "Wherever possible, work through existing institutions." Unfortunately, Libya has very few institutions at all. Outsiders might have to let the new rulers work out their own political problems in their own way, but nevertheless provide enormous amounts of technocratic help.
But who should those outsiders be? The United States has learned painful lessons about the limits of its credibility in the Arab and Muslim world, which is one reason why Obama has kept the American footprint as small as possible. Why, then, contemplate an American-led effort to rebuild Libya, especially one that U.S. taxpayers are not about to fund? When Libya was freed from colonial rule in 1951, it fell under the tutelage of the United Nations, which helped organize a provincial assembly and draft a constitution. Perhaps the U.N. needs to return to Libya and play something of the administrative role it did in post-conflict states such as Kosovo and East Timor. James Dobbins, a former senior American diplomat now at the RAND Corp., has argued that U.N.-led state-building efforts have generally proved far more cost-effective than American ones.
Libyans, who preserve a national memory of the hated colonial experience under Italy, however, may view even the U.N. as a neo-colonial force. Lisa Anderson suggests drawing on the resources of the global South, on states such as South Africa and Chile that have made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. One possible source of institutional — but non-state — support, she notes, would be the Club of Madrid, a group of former heads of state of democratic countries. That would be, she says, a "twenty-first century solution" to the problem of state-building.
I'm not quite convinced that a country that missed out on 20th century state-formation is ready for 21st century solutions. Still, all these issues are worth debating. What is not worth debating is whether, having decided to intervene in Libya, the international community has both an obligation to prepare for the post-conflict situation and the capacity to do something about it. The fiasco in Iraq does not demonstrate that outsiders are helpless to shape such chaotic settings, but rather that you need to pay close attention to their very complicated realities, and approach them with due humility. If they ever do reach Tripoli, the Libyans whose heroic resistance to Gadhafi we are now apostrophizing are going to turn around and say, "Help us." And it will not be enough to give Donald Rumsfeld's cynical shrug and say, "Democracy is messy." Copyright 2011 Foreign Policy. To see more, visit http://www.foreignpolicy.com/.