By Patricia Lee Sharpe
What’s wrong with these opening lines from an article entitled “Libyan Nation Building After Qaddafi? It’s dated 8/23/11 and it appeared in Foreign Affairs.
With the fall of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in sight, the United States and its allies face the familiar challenges of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction. As in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have prevailed militarily and Western governments must now assume some role in helping establish a new order.
What’s wrong? Let me help.
• Who “faces those challenges”? Who needs to “stabilize and reconstruct” Libya? Not “the U.S. and its allies.” Libya and the Libyans.
• Who “prevailed militarily”? The Libyan rebels prevailed—with the very considerable help of the “U.S. and its allies,” no doubt. But the Libyan rebels on the ground did the daring and dying.
• Whose proper “role” is it to establish “a new order”? Not “Western governments’.” The Libyan people’s. Western governments may be of some assistance, but what outsiders “must” do is wait to be invited and listen carefully to what’s wanted.
Misplaced focus is what’s wrong with the opening paragraph. The writers of the article assign the most important post-revolutionary tasks in Libya to non-Libyans, never representing Libyans as actors or responsible parties. A similar assumption that the locals are insignificant bit players in their own national lives all too often disfigures and compromises U.S. foreign assistance efforts. It guarantees we won’t get our money’s worth, even in the absence of massive corruption.
Now, how about the article’s conclusion:
For its part, the United States and the international community must apply the lessons of past reconstruction efforts tempering its expectations for rapid progress and responding to local needs while avoiding the impulse for unwanted intervention. Libya’s limited size, favorable location, relative wealth and homogeneous population should help ease a transition to peace and democracy, but absence of both government institutions and an established civil society suggest that the road may nevertheless be long and rocky.
Once again, the writers put the emphasis on the “U.S. and the international community.” As for the locals, they have only “needs,” not requirements, not specifications, not visions, not goals. The beneficiaries of post-revolutionary assistance are seen as little more than stunned victims of an earthquake or a tsunami, not as the proud authors of a political change.
If I were a Libyan reading these passages, I would be very worried about peremptory outsiders designing interventions that suit their own templates and then forcing them upon me: do what we say or no assistance. I would tremble to think of assistance from Americans who thought they knew what was good for Afghanistan and Iraq. I would also find it very hard to sleep in the knowledge that the Americans, even as they preach democracy, always anoint someone with whom they believe they can work during their interventions, which means that the people being assisted don’t get to choose who represents them. Already, among U.S. analysts and officials, there have been grumbling references to the fact that “we” don’t know who’s in change in Libya.
Remember the Shah in Iran? He was a guy the U.S. could work with. Remember the notorious Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq? He was the chummy guy we planned to set up as president. Remember Hamid Karzai? He was practically handpicked by the U.S. for the presidency, and oh dear! Not only is he no paragon, he bites the hand that feeds him. So much for American judgement in choosing leaders for non-Western countries. As for Al Maliki in Iraq, he’s probably managed to survive because he wasn’t our main man. One hopes that the U.S. foreign policy establishment will refrain from pressuring the Libyans to deliver a maximum leader in order to make it easy for Americans too simple-minded to work with a more complex leadership structure.
Post Gaddafi Libya lacks all the institutions that characterize an organized modern society. Most commentators view this as a dangerous disadvantage. I’d like to present this challenge as a wonderful opportunity. When you inherit institutions from a corrupt dictatorial regime, you have to reform the institutions from top to bottom anyway, and reforming a corrupt and/or disfunctional ministry or department is difficult if not impossible. Either you have to retrain the incumbents, which is very tricky, or you have to toss them out, which puts a lot of very angry people on the street. That’s what the Americans did in Iraq, with their draconian de-Ba’athification ukase. One hopes the Libyans will not follow this not-so-exemplary American example. However, the Americans haven’t succeeded in their efforts to reform existing bureaucracies in Afghanistan either. That was predictable. If there’s no drive for efficiency and honesty from inside the society, outsiders can’t impose it.
So Libya gets to start fresh. I read that people responsible for the water works and oil installations are being put to work. That sounds sensible. No modern society can do without its technicians. So far militias have kept order with little or no looting and a minimum of retributive violence, all things considered (and with the sad exception of sub-Saharan Africans, only a small percentage of whom were mercenaries in Gaddafi’s army). This relative restraint buys time while, day by day, instilling a certain habit of reticence vis-à-vis the rule of the gun. In a healthy society, good public order does not depend on the police establishment anyway. It’s part of good citizenship.
Still, a new Libyan Constitution will have to be written, soon, and decisions will have to be made about the form and processes of the government it will enshrine. I’m not so sure that elaborate, massive outside help is needed for the big decisions (although a little technical assistance on how to word intentions may be wise). There are plenty of highly educated people among the rebels, including those with a knowledge of law. But you don’t have to be a lawyer or a Ph.D. in political science to know the main choices when it comes to democratic governance. Parliamentary or presidential? Two legislative chambers or only one? Unitary or federal power structure? Proportional or winner-take-all voting systems? And so on, each with its pros and cons. But I would not rule out the possibility that Libyans may find it useful to look at traditional ways of sharing decision-making. If I recall correctly, the authors of the U.S. Constitution looked to certain councils by which the Iroquois peoples governed themselves. Moreover, in Libya, clear respect for traditions may make a modern constitution more palatable to conservative sheiks and other tribal leaders. Finally, Westerners should not go ballistic if Libyans, though mostly secular, should come up with some Preamble that makes a reference to Islam. Barack Obama can’t climb on a podium without invoking the Christian God. And need I mention the influence of religious conservatives on American politics today?
Everyone agrees that Libya is very fortunate in one respect. Libya has oil and from what I read oil production should be back on line shortly, athough guerilla-style disruption by rear guard Gaddafi loyalists will probably be a threat for some time to come. Meanwhile, repatriation of funds held abroad is already paying the salaries of essential workers. Given the corruption, wastage, poor project fulfillment and other scandals attached to the billions that the U.S. has poured into Iraq and Afghanistan, it may be wise for Libya to limit the amount and flow of funds from the U.S. It should certainly oversee the use of any such funds more assiduously than the U.S. seems to be have thought important. It’s unrealistic to believe that there will be no corruption in the new Libya, but responsible management can minimize its corrosion of the new institutions. And there’s something to be said for minimizing the degree to which one is beholden to others.
Certainly the rebels should be grateful for the assistance they have received from “the U.S. and its allies.” Clearly Gaddafi couldn’t have been dislodged without that air support. But nation-building is much more complex than dropping bombs or strafing enemy tanks—and there are national nuances that must always be taken into consideration. For that reason, it’s best that Libyans take the lead. Friends may be well-meaning, they may have many promising ideas, but they are not always wise.
Am I being too optimistic here, too trusting of the wisdom of those who brought about regime change in Libya? Maybe, but I can’t help remembering another rabble who won a war and then had a hard time writing a constitution that all of the revolutionaries could agree to. Even that compromise didn’t last without severe challenge. There was that interlude called a Civil War. So, what would I suggest to outsiders like “the U.S. and its allies,” in re what they must or must not do in Libya? Don’t interfere. Support. Be just a little modest. And remember this: covert manipulation usually backfires.