NOTE: This contains elements of an earlier post on the death of Moammar Gadhafi. It is posted here as the electronic version of today’s AJC column:
The death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi at the hands of Libyan rebels constitutes a major victory for the Libyan people and its new government. But as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted on her celebratory visit to Libya’s capital this week, what comes next is the hard part and in many ways the more important part.
No one can say with any certainty where Libya will go from here. A democracy of sorts could emerge; a new dictator could seize power; Islamic radicals could take control. All of those must be acknowledged as possibilities. In Libya, as in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere, the transition from an Arab world dominated by cruelly repressive regimes to an Arab world with a more normalized relationship between government and the governed is not going to occur quickly, and it’s not going to occur without setbacks.
Post-Sept. 11, however, preserving the status quo simply isn’t an option. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” as President Kennedy put it, and NATO and American policy toward Libya reflects that hard-learned lesson. We now recognize that ferment in the Arab world can no longer be contained, and that if it isn’t allowed to change in one direction, it will change in another.
So far, so good. As U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican from Florida, described it this week after visiting Libya as part of a congressional delegation, “I just left 10 hours of visiting an Arab, Islamic, enthusiastically pro-American country in terms of the people we met on the street. People were grateful, people were thankful, people were excited that we were there and the enthusiasm in the crowd was palpable everywhere we went.”
In that regard, Gadhafi’s ouster and death constitute a pretty big win for President Obama’s approach of supporting Libyan rebels militarily without putting Western troops on the ground. A low-risk policy of limited intervention has helped to remove a brutal dictator with a long history of sponsoring international terrorism. It has given the people of Libya the opportunity to create something much better for themselves, and providing that opportunity is about all the non-Arab world can hope to accomplish in that region.
We can help, offering aid and advice and support, but they’re the one who actually have to do it.
Years from now, political scientists and geopolitical strategists will probably be studying the outcome in Libya and comparing it to the outcome in Iraq. In one nation, change was forced upon it by outsiders who invested hundreds of billions of dollars in an effort at nation-building. In another, the bulk of the fighting and sacrifice came from the citizens themselves, with essential but limited support from abroad.
If we’re lucky, both nations will in time emerge as enduring, operational democracies, however they choose to define such a thing. In that sense, Iraq’s apparent insistence that all U.S. troops leave their country by the end of the year is probably a welcome sign of confidence, an indication that its people want to set their own course, even if many American experts worry that they’re not ready.
In either case, we know that the Iraq approach cannot be repeated. We lack the resources, the manpower and the sustained commitment to intervene on such a scale again. Most of all, we lack the wisdom to impose unilateral solutions on a people with a very different culture and history.
However things turn out — and there are no guarantees under either approach — the blessings of liberty and self-governance are valued most by those who have fought for and earned them for themselves.
– Jay Bookman