Libya's Premature Victory Celebrations

How we can avert the nightmare scenario

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Libyans have taken to the streets to celebrate the impending end of Muammar al-Qaddafi's forty-two year rule. These celebrations are as understandable as they are premature. The tyrant is leaving, but who or what replaces him remains to be decided.

Washington knows what it wants next in Libya: a stable, preferably democratic government that exercises effective control over all its territory. A politically and economically successful Libya could be a model for the rest of the Arab world.

But success in Libya is not guaranteed. The Libyan rebels agree that Qaddafi had to go. They don't necessarily agree on who or what should replace him. Qaddafi undermined every institution that might threaten his rule, which means that the rebels will be building Libya's new political system from scratch. Tribal, regional, and class divisions could easily derail these efforts.

The nightmare outcome is a Libya that collapses into anarchy. It would become a breeding ground for criminals and terrorists. Al Qaeda and its affiliates gravitate to countries that have weak, ineffective governments.

The next month will go a long way toward determining whether Libya  succeeds or fails. Making sure that food and other basic necessities reach Libyans in need will be critical to establishing the credibility of the rebels' Transitional National Council (TNC).

Preventing the breakdown of law and order will be equally important. The lawlessness that gripped Baghdad in the weeks immediately following Saddam Hussein's ouster helped set the stage for the insurgency that followed. If Tripoli can avoid a similar fate, Libya stands a fighting chance of making the most of its new-found freedom.

Continued violence in Libya could come from several sources. Qaddafi loyalists might continue fighting. Rival rebel militias might square off against each other. Revenge killings could spur a cycle of escalating violence.

So what are the White House's next steps? The White House has pledged humanitarian assistance. Direct U.S. military intervention, however, is off the table. Neither the administration nor the American people has much interest in putting American boots on the ground in yet another country.

What might the administration do instead to keep violence in Libya in check? There are two basic choices:

1. Leave it to the Libyans. NATO bombing was essential to breaking Qaddafi's hold on power, but it was the Libyan people who fought and risked their lives on the ground. The United States and NATO could continue to advise and support the TNC on political reconciliation and economic reconstruction, but otherwise stay out of the way.

2. Champion an International Peacekeeping Force for Libya. Such a force could range from a few hundred paramilitary police officers to several thousand military troops. The police and/or troops could come from Europe or elsewhere in the Middle East. Their goal would be to keep the peace in Tripoli and other pro-Qaddafi strongholds and oversee a general disarmament. Such a force might stay only a few months or perhaps longer depending on the conditions.

President Obama said nothing in his address today about the role that peacekeepers might play in Libya. So for it looks for now that he prefers leaving matters in the hands of the Libyans.

But that calculation could change quickly if the TNC fails to establish control. The question then will be whether the peacekeepers that do go in get there in time to save Libya from a nightmare outcome.

This article originally appeared at

Presented by

James M. Lindsay is director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes at The Water's Edge.

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