In the aftermath of the downfall of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, a preposterous debate has been raging in policy circles about the extent to which the West “owns” the future of Libya and what it “owes” the Libyan people.
The whole point of the limited military engagement was precisely to avoid this kind of responsibility, and that was both a Libyan and a Western desire. The Libyan rebels made it clear that they wanted military assistance from the air and in terms of weapons, intelligence and training, but not direct outside intervention on the ground. They wished to remain masters of their own fate, and so they are.
Similarly there was little appetite among Western publics and elite in favor of a ground intervention in Libya. Even the limited engagement lacked widespread support.
The current debate about who “owns” Libya is wrongheaded. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule—namely “if you break it, you own it”—coined in the context of the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, does not apply here. The Iraq war was an unsolicited outside intervention for regime change almost entirely disconnected from events inside Iraq or any kind of Iraqi agency. In Libya, the rebellion and the civil war happened spontaneously, without much outside guidance or interference.
Certainly the United States and its NATO allies, along with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, played an important role in influencing what happened in Libya, but the outcome was ultimately determined by Libyans.
The intervention was not humanitarian, being shaped by obvious and rational interests. However, it served a laudable purpose of helping overthrow a foul dictator. No doubt the Libyan opposition is and should be grateful, but no one outside Libya “owns” the country or the long-term outcome of its revolution.
The interest in post-conflict stabilization in Libya is clear, but the powers that helped overthrow Qaddafi do not “owe” the Libyans anything further. It would be extremely unwise not to provide aid and support, particularly in terms of building political institutions and other key aspects of reconstruction.
However, this needs to be done according to the means available to donor countries and pursuant to specific requests from the new Libyan leadership. The impulse to rush to send huge numbers of aid workers and security consultants to Libya before the challenges have been properly assessed, and before a new government has determined its priorities, is a holdover from other conflicts and indeed other eras.
There’s a real element of hubris in the present debate. It might be true that without Western air power and Qatari money the Libyan rebels might not have triumphed, at least so quickly. But on the ground they were the ones who took the risks and accomplished the goal.
Libya is not a particularly poor, underdeveloped or war-ravaged country. It has a relatively small population with limited social divisions, and a ready source of income. The biggest challenge ahead is political, not development or reconstruction. Libya lacks political institutions and traditions, and will in short order require functioning new security forces. In these contexts in particular, outside help could be extremely useful.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, an unnamed British official cited by The Economist and numerous others have claimed the West, in particular the United States, owns the future of Libya. By contrast, Joshua Foust has asked a series of very pointed questions about how much aid and intervention would be forthcoming, and how it would be defined and even justified. A sensible approach, surely, strikes a middle ground. Because it helped the Libyan people overthrow their dictator, the West neither owns Libya nor the outcome of its revolution, nor does it owe its people a package of limitless assistance.
However, the countries that intervened have a stake in helping the Libyans develop a successful transition. That means carefully targeted support, in close coordination with the new authorities, but not the kind of nation-building program that was required in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The limited military engagement was designed to produce limited military results. It was a recognition of both the limitations of Western power and the need to allow the Libyans to largely determine their own fate.
Post-conflict stabilization assistance should follow the same model: limited efforts designed to produce limited results, leaving Libyans in charge of their own destiny. Skeptics like Foust will ask for a clearly defined and detailed post-conflict strategy for Libyan reconstruction and stabilization. Their desire for clarity is understandable but at this stage unrealistic.
Western countries and Qatar can and should play a helpful but limited role. The post-conflict stabilization process, like the revolution, should be driven by Libyans for their own country.
Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.