War Stories

Applying the Lessons of Iraq to Libya

Five concrete steps the West (and other allies) should take today.

Rebel fighters ride toward Gadayem, west of Tripoli, on Aug. 21

With Muammar Qaddafi’s reign in Libya all but finished, the question now becomes: What next? Nobody on the inside knows, and those of us on the outside—who haven’t been privy to discussions between rebel leaders and their Western contacts—know less.

At least this time around, everyone understands (or should, anyway) that “regime change” marks only the beginning of the story, not the end. And, in any case, this time (a major difference between post-Qaddafi Libya and, say, post-Saddam Iraq), the Libyans will be in charge; it’s been their war, and it will soon be their victory, not ours.

In this sense, President Barack Obama’s policy of supporting the rebels only to the extent of doing things that nobody else can do—a policy decried by his critics as either too much or too little—has turned out to be just about right.

Without the precision bombing at the start of the conflict, the surveillance-and-attack drones later on, and the command-control networks throughout, the rebellion almost certainly would have been crushed. (My guess is that CIA and other Western nations’ special-ops officers also helped train the rebel soldiers on the ground.)

At the same time, because the United States has kept a low profile (compared with other NATO nations, especially Britain, France, and Italy, which have a more vital interest in the fate of Libya), the “Pottery Barn rule”—you break it, you buy it—will not apply.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., issued a truly obnoxious statement today, congratulating “our British, French, and other allies, as well as our Arab partners, especially Qatar and the UAE, for their leadership in this conflict,” adding, almost as an afterthought, “Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Qaddafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower.”

First, six months, while longer than most people anticipated (and an eternity in the world of 24-hour cable news), is not a terribly long time for an operation to depose a dictator who’s managed to stay in power for close to 42 years.

Second, if a pair of prominent Democrats had issued such a statement after, say, President George W. Bush helped to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan, they would have been condemned as bitter partisans or worse.

If Obama had launched a massive bombing campaign, much less put U.S. infantry troops on the ground (as some neoconservatives urged), and if Qaddafi had surrendered or died in the rubble of his palace as a result, the world—perhaps the rebels themselves—would have been incensed by the “imperialist aggression” and would have demanded that the United States restore order, then criticized us sharply if our effort fell short.

Still, even now, the Libyans cannot restore order or rebuild their country by themselves. Thanks in good part to Qaddafi’s four decades of rule, they have no democratic traditions or institutions, their economy is in shambles, their military and police are in retreat, and—as much as the rebels have learned over the last few months about maneuvering against an enemy army and coordinating an assault on a city—it’s an open question how well they’d be able to police that same city.

There are lessons to be learned from what was done, and not done, in the early months of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Let’s hope that somebody is figuring out how to apply these lessons to Libya.

For example:

Impose law and order immediately.If the U.S.-led authorities had shot a few looters in the first days after Saddam Hussein fled Baghdad (instead of heralding the chaos as an exuberant expression of freedom, as Donald Rumsfeld did), the occupation of Iraq might have followed a very different course. After Qaddafi is toppled, the new powers, whoever they are, may declare a curfew, perhaps even martial law, at least for a while. This should not necessarily be cause for alarm; probably it’s essential, not only to prevent pro-Qaddafi holdouts from continuing to fight but also to contain factional and tribal tensions among the rebels.

As a precondition to imposing order, the rebel commanders will need to figure out a way to share power, at least in the short term. This may not be easy. The “rebel forces” consist of at least a dozen factions, some of which hate one another. (Just a few weeks ago, the top rebel commander was murdered, almost certainly by a rival officer.) One hopes they’ve already settled on some formula. If they haven’t, this may get very messy.

Release the money. At the start of this conflict, Western nations froze Libyan assets ($30 billion in the United States alone), pending the ascent of a new regime. The Obama administration has now recognized the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government (as have most of the other Western nations involved in this), and officials are now saying the freeze will be lifted.

A big lesson not only of post-Saddam Iraq but also of Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, and nearly every political upheaval of this magnitude in history, is that revolutions breed high expectations—and, if the expectations aren’t at least somewhat satisfied, tyranny returns or chaos erupts. One way to avoid these ill fates is to provide jobs, and one way to do that is to fund projects. Much in Libya needs rebuilding, or just plain building. Money needs to be funneled into these kinds of projects as soon as possible.

The key phrase, of course, is “as soon as possible.” One can only hope that some mechanism is ready, to be put in place quickly, that can process, administer, and monitor the cash flow. This mechanism doesn’t have to be perfect or IMF-proof. In some ways, it’s better if it involves traditional, or in some way familiar, networks of authority. But just dumping money is a recipe for inflation, intense corruption (some corruption is almost inevitable, but beyond that it can be ruinous), and the absence of real development.

Once some mechanism is established, the money should be funneled to local projects, preferably a lot of small ones, after (speedy) consultation with, if not outright control by, people who know what kinds of improvements are needed and feasible. Iraq provides a negative lesson here. When, after some delay, the United States appropriated $18.5 billion for economic reconstruction in Iraq, the money was spent on large projects and contracted to Western corporations whose managers were clueless about the local environment. For instance, a lot of money was spent on a new electrical power plant—but there were no wires to run the electricity to local homes. Much was also allotted to building a new sewage-treatment facility—but the contract contained no provision for laying pipes to drain the sewage.

Help set up local elections quickly. It’s naive to expect the new Libya to spring forth as a democracy. But whatever political system emerges or evolves, it is unlikely to take hold peacefully unless a critical mass of the population feels that the new system is theirs and that they have a stake in its success. Perhaps the biggest mistakes the U.S. occupation authorities made in post-Saddam Iraq (besides tolerating looters, disbanding the army, and barring Baathist Party members from holding government jobs) were to install a prime minister and to create a complicated system of caucuses for selecting a national parliament. It would have been better to recognize the tribal and regional nature of Iraq as the basis for creating forums to elect local representatives—in short, to allow government to build up more “organically” from the grassroots.

It can only be hoped (and, again, if this isn’t the case, things will go badly soon) that the diplomats, intelligence officers, and other advisers who have been convening with the rebels these past weeks or months include some people who know something about the social structure of Libya—and that these people are listened to by senior officials, who almost certainly (and understandably) don’t.

A role for the CIA? It may be serendipitous that Gen. David Petraeus is being sworn in as director of the Central Intelligence Agency on Sept. 6. In the opening months of the Iraq occupation, Petraeus, at the time commander of the 101st Airborne Division, did in northern Iraq (specifically, in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province) all the things that somehow need to be done in Libya. He imposed law and order through widespread patrols, set up local elections with the help of local leaders, and funded thousands of reconstruction projects with money that Saddam Hussein had stashed away in his palaces. (This money, known as the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, was delved into for similar projects by many of the U.S. commanders in Iraq, not just Petraeus.)

Whether Petraeus’ CIA will get involved in actually setting up this sort of program in Libya is doubtful. (The agency has neither a clear mandate nor a cultural disposition to conduct “stability operations.” And the State Department, which is preparing to set up an embassy in Tripoli as soon as the smoke clears, is likely to insist on taking the lead in this realm, to the extent the United States plays a role at all.)

Still, the agency can (and would, if ordered to do so, even if Petraeus weren’t about to become its director) conduct intelligence operations to help identify where stabilizing funds could best be directed. In any case, since he will be a Cabinet-level officer, it would be silly not to draw on his experience in these matters. (Some White House officials don’t quite trust Petraeus and view him as a little too ambitious—one reason he wasn’t named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But they should get over it.)

Keep it international. Above all (and I’m sure the White House regards this as a basic premise), whatever kind of government is created in Libya, and whatever kind of reconstruction programs are offered from outside its borders, the United States will not be in the lead. Nor should it be. President Obama signed up for this mission in a decisive but limited manner, and it is as sure a bet as anything in American politics that “decisive but limited” will remain as the scope of his commitment.

In his statement today, Obama lauded the operation as, among other things, a demonstration of “what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one.” Ever since the end of the Cold War, Americans have been waiting for the allies to step to the plate, and the allies have been complaining (sometimes disingenuously) about America’s tendency to dominate. All signs suggest that Obama is determined that Libya remain a theater—through war and peace, conflict and resolution—where players on both sides of the Atlantic (and let’s include the Arab allies in this too) see their wishes come true.