Does Libya Mark a New Era in US Foreign Policy? Or will we screw up an easy victory again?

Fareed Zakaria recently wrote on CNN that the overthrow of Gadhafi marks a new era in US foreign policy.  From now on, we have a model of achieving more at less cost by doing more burden sharing with allies, seeking strong regional support, and working with indigenous forces committed to the same goals.

Contrast the cost and success of US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and in Libya, Zakaria says, and you will see that the latter was a low-cost success.

But I have to disagree — not because there was anything wrong with US policy, which I strongly supported — but because it is way too soon to call the Libya operation a success.  Has Zakaria forgotten how swiftly the Saddam Hussein regime fell in Iraq in 2003, and how the celebrations in the streets of Baghdad were followed by Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment?  Has he forgotten how swiftly a handful of US special forces, teamed with the indigenous forces of the Northern Alliance, sent the Taliban packing and liberated Afghanistan from their ferocious dictatorship?

The verdict on US policy (and the enormous costs and frustrations) only came in the following years, when US efforts at state-building went horribly wrong.  Only by 2006 in Iraq, and by 2009 in Afghanistan, was it apparent how badly US policy had screwed up in the wake of rapid and easy victories over dictators.

The real test of whether we are in a new era of US policy will be, first, will the actions of the US and other allies help Libyans build a stable democratic state, or will Libya fall into sectarian violence, civil war, and terrorism, as did Iraq and Afghanistan?  And second, will the same kinds of actions Zakaria points to — burden sharing with our allies, reliance on indigenous leadership, and a more modest supporting role — be effective in the task of state construction in the wake of Gadhafi’s fall?

There are reasons to be hopeful that we can learn from our previous failures.  First, although Libya has internal cleavages — Berbers vs. Arabs, Easterners vs. Westerners, and various tribal groups — these are not nearly as severe as the Kurd/Arab and Shi’a/Sunni divisions in Iraq, or the Pashtun/Uzbek and Tajik divisions in Afghanistan.  So the initial conditions are a bit more promising.  Second, and far more important, the reasons for the failures of state-building in Iraq and Afghanistan are fairly clear, and can (one hopes) be avoided in Libya.

In both countries, the US ignored the first rule of post-conflict state-building: providing security is issue number one.  In Iraq, the US-run provisional government disbanded the Iraqi army and police, then tolerated looting.  Weeks were wasted sending troops searching for Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, instead of securing the weapons caches that had been left all across the country.  In Afghanistan, the US ignored the pleas of the Karzai government to extend the security mandate of the International Security Assitance Forces (ISAF) beyond Kabul.  Intent on moving forces to Iraq, we were content to let the country beyond Kabul be divided up among ‘friendly’ warlords who imposed their own corrupt and often arbitrary authority.  Security in both countries deteriorated quickly, and key regions became havens for rebel forces.

In Libya, it is vital that the somewhat irregular rebel forces be reinforced by elements of the regular army and police who can be integrated into national security forces.  Professional police trainers and military and police advisors — whether Italian or German or French or UN — should be offered to help Libyans provide reliable and professional security to all of their citizens.  Weapons caches need to be secured, retribution needs to be stymied, and sheer lawlessness needs to be avoided.  While most tribal and Berber areas can manage their own security, the cities and key oil and military installations need professional security forces to keep order.

Second, in both countries, the US also ignored rule 2 of state-building — do not hold elections until you have fair confidence they can be conducted in such a fashion that the results will be accepted as fair and legitimate.  That means that political parties should have time to form and find leaders; that the rules of politics should favor parties that bridge regional and other differences and do not emphasize them; that wide participation is assured; and that unbaised and trusted elections commissions will manage the elections and count up the results.  Instead, the US set fast and arbitrary deadlines for having elections; treated the mere act of having elections as providing legitimacy instead of seeing pursuit of legitimacy as a problematic task that has to be tackled prior to elections; allowed political party systems that emphasized sharp political cleavages; and tolerated biased and suspect election commissions to run them.  The result was mass boycotts, elections with poor turnout and suspect counting, and resulting governments that were weaker and less legitimate after elections, instead of stronger and more widely supported.

In Libya, planning for elections needs to ensure that the results will help unify the country by providing a fair and open process with broad participation and trust in those running the electoral process.

And yes, the US also ignored the third rule of post-conflict state-building; spend money on jobs, not projects.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US spent vast fortunes on thousands of projects — for water, electricity, schools, clinics, offices, stock exchanges, pipelines, generators, roads, etc.   Yet all the projects funnelled assistance funds mainly to US and international contractors,  using lots of expensive foreign labor, foreign designs, foreign materials, and INGOs, so most money did not go to local workers, except where graft and corruption let money slip away, often to rebels who funded their operations with funds scammed from US assistance operations.

In Libya, it is essential that if the US and its allies offer financial or project assistance, it is designed to deliver the maximum job creation for Libyans.  Massive unemployment, especially among Libyan youth, was a major factor in the enmity toward Gadhafi — if that problem is not relieved, animosity will also rise toward any successor regime.

Let us now see if the US, in its new mode of ‘supporting’ and ‘leading from behind’ with local and international allies, can get the post-overthrow policies right: provide security, legitimate elections, and jobs.  We did none of the above in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If we do not do better in Libya, then once again an apparently rapid victory will turn into a tragedy.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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1 Response to Does Libya Mark a New Era in US Foreign Policy? Or will we screw up an easy victory again?

  1. When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire last December he ignited an inferno that has swept through the Arab World. 100 years from now historians will speak of the “Arab Spring” and the subsequent events that continue to unfold. This is one of the most exciting times in human history to observe sweeping change as they take place.

    Dr. Goldstone is correct – although we can celebrate what has taken place there is still danger and uncertainty in the future. We all know how the French Revolution led to the guillotine and Napoleon, the Russian Revolution to the gulag and Stalin, the Chinese Revolution to Mao and the Cultural Revolution . . .

    I would argue that while Professor Goldstone has identified the three keys to success for Libya his order is incorrect. First, yes, security, rule of law. But I would substitute jobs as the second key to success over fair elections. Mr. Bouazizi’s protest was sparked not by his political concerns, but because he was harassed, insulted and pressured about his work. As Tip O’Neil rightfully said: “All politics is local.” Like other Arab nations, Libya has a massive youth bulge. Unless there are opportunities for gainful employment and sustainable economic growth the Arab Spring will give way to an Arab Winter.

    The people of Libya, like the citizens of Egypt and Tunisia, have a big edge over the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq and Afghanistan it was the US military that overthrew the previous regimes. The regime change in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were accomplished by and for the people of these nations with limited outside assistance. This will create a sense of pride and accomplishment absent in Iraq and Afghanistan and contribute to the long-term prospects for success. But the jury is still out – will these revolutions lead to success, where peace, justice and liberty persevere, or fall into civil war and sectarian violence? Security and rule of law first, jobs (the economy, stupid!) second and fair elections third – in this order, will help the odds for a successful transition towards freedom and democracy.

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