NATO is winding down its Libyan campaign, declaring it the latest triumph of good over evil. U.S. President Barack Obama has declared that the road to democracy is now open for the Libyan people. The partially clad, mutilated corpse of Muammar Gaddafi, which was displayed for several days in a wholesale vegetable refrigeration unit for public amusement instead of being buried, was apparently supposed to symbolize the triumph of justice. So, the alliance did not fight in vain – its values are winning out on Libyan soil.
NATO should wrap up its operation as quickly as possible to prevent this brilliant victory from being marred by what comes next. The cumulative experience of Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia makes it easy to imagine how things might play out.
Gaddafi’s death eliminates the main factor uniting the motley Libyan coalition. Hatred of the dictator and a desire for revenge had held it together, but now the focus is on power and money.
Libya is a complex country of territorial and tribal divisions. Violence was the basis of Gaddafi’s rule but there was more to it. He cut deals with tribal chiefs and bribed the most important local representatives, while at the same time distributing at least some of the oil revenue among the population to create a higher standard of living than in neighboring countries. Incidentally, the liberal reforms suggested by Western advisors are bound to irritate the population after years of paternalism.
Will the new authorities rely on this system of balancing interests in the country, or will they create a new system? No one knows. The removal of Gaddafi and the rout of his supporters do not amount to control over the country. Supporters of the Gaddafi regime may launch a guerilla war, but this is not the most likely option. More likely, certain regions will gain de facto autonomy. They may either refuse to follow orders from Tripoli or demand permanent financial and political favors for cooperation. Much will depend on how the new authorities treat supporters of the old regime. Will they settle scores and purge collaborators? The Iraqi experience is crystal clear – even U.S. officials have admitted that disbanding the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein’s agencies plunged Iraq into chaos.
It is not yet clear who the new authorities are. In recent months, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has started associating itself with certain figures (until then nothing was clear at all), but their relations are still vague. The best known figures are defectors from the Gaddafi camp. Anyone who has the desire to discredit these individuals will be able to find plenty of evidence. There is fear that Islamists will come to power, which is not surprising given that Gaddafi brutally suppressed them. Now they believe their time has come. In general, the trend in the Middle East seems clear: the departure of secular regimes (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and probably Yemen and Syria in the near future) and the growing influence of Islamic forces.
The role of the West and its relations with Libya, if it remains united, is a separate issue. The oil and gas companies of at least three countries – France, Italy and Britain – believe they have every right to be in the lead. Paris started the war; Rome has the longest and deepest contacts in its former colony; while London supported its allies with its armed force and political resolve. They will still have to agree on how to divide the spoils – if the war had any practical meaning, it was its contribution to the energy security of Europe and the prosperity of its companies. Libya is not very important for other regions.
The new Libyan authorities have already declared their intention to be guided by political considerations in their economic decisions. Thus, Russia and China, as well as Brazil and Germany cannot hope for much because they did not enthusiastically support the intervention. True, Russian companies may take part in Libyan projects via partnerships with Western corporations with which they have good relations. The question is whether the companies of the allies will be able to do business in Libya – any mishaps in the nation building effort will make business unstable and there will be no restraining factor like the occupying forces in Iraq. Moreover, there are some indirect signs that even the current NTC leaders may be much less pliant than European and American politicians expect them to be.
Gaddafi’s death draws a line under an entire era, but it may mark the beginning rather than the end of the real crisis in Libya.