Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Libya is not Iraq
It is unfortunate that many Western commentators are making comparisons between Iraq after the US invasion of March 2003 and the overthrow of Mu'ammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya. What does tie Iraq and Libya together is the lessons that US foreign policy makers have learned from the mistakes of the Bush administration in Iraq. Eschewing a "top down" approach, the Obama administration has allowed the Libyan National Transitional Council(NTC)to take the lead in setting the agenda for the campaign to rid Libya of Qaddafi's rule and to map out the broad outlines of the post-Qaddafi era.
One of the main differences between the overthrew of Saddam in 2003 and the end of the Qaddafi regime was the manner in which the US approached the two countries. Both pre-invasion and post-Saddam policy in Iraq involved limited consultation with a small number of Iraqis. Even the main political actors that dominated Iraqi politics in 2003 and 2004 were handpicked by the Department of Defense and the White House.
In Libya, the main political actors have emerged from the struggle against the Qaddafi regime. Some may be suspect for once having once been part of that regime. But we do not hear any talk of the functional equivalent of "de-Ba'thification" in Libya, namely preventing anyone associated with the Qaddafi regime from participating in post-Qaddafi politics. Only those who were at the core of the ancien regime will have to face trials.
Another major difference between Iraq and Libya is that the Qaddafi regime has been overthrown by the Libyan people. True, NATO warplanes and logistical support have been crucial in that victory. Still, it has been the Libyan people, especially youth who make up 75% of the population under 30, who have made up the casualties in the struggle to rid Libya of its repressive dictator. Even if NATO had not been involved, it is highly likely that we would still have seen a protracted struggle such as that which is currently underway in Syria.
In Iraq, the US military that was completely responsible for ridding the country of the Ba'th. Iraqis had little or no sense of having contributed to the Ba'thist regime's downfall. The manner in which the Bush administration failed to control extensive looting in Baghdad in April 2003, including protecting the priceless artifacts of the Iraq Museum, created anger and distrust among Iraqis of US objectives in Iraq. It also undermined support for the Bush administration's professed goal of creating a democratic Iraq. Many Iraqis did not trust the Bush administration who they felt did not seem to have developed a well defined policy for post-Saddam Iraq.
In Libya, on the other hand, the US, NATO, the UN and the international community generally have used a light touch when dealing with rebel forces and their political arm, the NTC. Libyan rebels have been forced to make their own decisions and suffer the consequences when these decisions have not worked out, e.g., overstretching their supply lines when engaging Qaddafi's loyalist forces. They have not been able to blame anyone but themselves and in the process have undergone an important learning process.
As rebel forces have struggled to oust the Qaddafi regime, groups of fighters representing different regions, ideologies and tribes have had to cooperate and work together to develop joint military and political strategies. This is not to say that these differences have been overcome and won't reemerge in the new post-Qaddafi era. However, informal groups of rebel fighters have already been formed throughout the country and developed a certain level of trust as they have fought together against what were often better trained and equipped forces.
In Iraq, post-Saddam politics quickly fell under the control of exiles who had not lived in Iraq for many years, in some cases decades. These new leaders have been referred to by Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael as "carpetbaggers." Indeed, many Iraqis were highly suspicious of these politicians who came to Iraq in March and April, 2003 with US forces and who had not suffered under Saddam as had the populace at large.
Unlike the political leadership that developed in Iraq after Saddam was toppled, the NTC and military leaders in Libya are much closer to the Libyan citizenry. Yes, some of them were part of Qaddafi's regime, and at least one, the NTC's military commander, Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes, was assassinated for having served Qaddafi. Yet the majority of the new leadership has not only shown great courage, especially in the beginning of the struggle when it was not at all clear that Qaddafi would be defeated, and in their measured approach to the struggle. What has been particularly impressive in the NTC's focus on national reconciliation, and their mantra that Libyans not engage in revenge killings and treat their captives with respect.
In short, the old adage that democracy is not a gift that one nation can give to another but must be created by the people through a process of struggle, has played itself out in Libya, as it has in Egypt, Tunisia which are also engaged in the "Arab Spring." All the doubts that Western commentators have expressed about Libya being a "tribal society" in which all the institutions of civil society were destroyed by Qaddafi are arguments of those who doubt that Libya (or any of the countries of the Arab Middle East) can become truly democratic nation-states.
Iraq has made impressive strides towards democracy, even with the many mistakes made by the US occupation administration in 2003 and 2004. It held free and fair parliamentary and provincial legislative elections in 2005, 2009 and 2010. In the March 2010 elections, a secular nationalist coalition led by a Shiite, Ayad Allawi, won a majority of seats and garnered electoral support from all of Iraq's major ethnoconfessional groups. All observers agreed that the elections were fair and free.
Iraq boasts over 6000 registered civil society organizations. The press plays a vigorous role in criticizing the government for not providing needed social services, while the heads of the Shiite and Sunni communities, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Shaykh Ahmad Abd al-Ghaffur al-Samara'i respectively, constantly demand that the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki eliminate extensive corruption and nepotism within its ranks.
In many ways, it can be argued that Iraq has had faced an even more difficult road than Libya in its efforts to implement a democratic transition. Not only did it experience extensive sectarian based violence after 2003, but it has suffered from a fragmented and dysfunctional political elite that spends more time focusing on infighting than trying to work for the interests of the Iraqi people.
Unlike Iraq, Libya will most likely be able to avoid regional, tribal or sectarian based conflict, e.g., Arab against Berber. Libya's political elite seems much more cohesive than its Iraqi counterpart and more closely linked to the populace at large. The NTC and its successor government may use Libya's oil wealth for corrupt ends as have Iraq's Arab and Kurdish political elites. But there are many indications that the NTC benefits from a "civic core" within its ranks that will work to prevent widespread abuses of power such as we saw under the Qaddafi regime
Many would argue that Iraqis have a stronger sense of national identity than do Libyans. This may be true. However, the fact that Iraq, Libya and most of the countries of the Middle East are experiencing a "youth bulge," where a large percentage of the population refuses to adhere to the shibboleths of the past, loses sight of the fact that we are witnessing not just an Arab Spring but the birth of a new generation of political leadership throughout the Middle East.
In Libya, the new generation does not find that tribalism offers them much in the way of improving their lives. Tribalism was more effective for leaders like Saddam and Qaddafi who used it to create social and political cleavages that were intended to "divide and conquer" the populace. However, in the process, Saddam and Qaddafi atomized tribes, often killing their leaders if they refused to follow their dictates. The result was that the tribal system in both countries was undermined and has lost much of its social and political legitimacy.
Observers, Western Arab and others, have every right to be concerned about the form of the new political system that will emerge in Libya now that the Qaddafi regime has been toppled. But we need to avoid the temptation to trot out the old and tired stereotypes about "Islam," "tribalism" and l"lack of national identity" preventing a transition to democracy in the Arab world, so as to not encourage a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead, the Obama administration, NATO, Turkey, Qatar and other friends of Libya's NTC should continue their policy of patient, wise and non-obtrusive counseling, supplemented by whatever technical expertise they can offer the new Libyan government. The Arab Spring will enjoy a much greater probability of success if it can count on consistent and long-term support from its allies, both inside and outside the Middle East.
This type of support - namely providing support for the new Libyan government's needs as it defines them - is the best way to avoid the mistakes of Iraq. For those who want to see Libya become a functioning democracy, it is also the most appropriate way to honor all the Libyans who have died so their their countrymen could be free.