In Libya as in Iraq, a Dictator's Death Can Bring New Problems

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After the killing of Qaddafi, Libya and the supporters of its revolution face some major challenges

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Anti-Gaddafi fighters ride in a vehicle trailed by an image of Muammar al-Qaddafi after the fall of Sirte on October 20, 2011 / Reuters)

Muammar al-Qaddafi died today as he ruled Libya--cruelly. Still, few Libyans will lament how he was killed. They are understandably celebrating the death of a tyrant--and the promise of a brighter future.

But a despot's death hardly guarantees a better day. Just ask the Iraqis. Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003 and executed three years later. Iraq nonetheless has been wracked by violence for eight years. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died wondering when the peace promised by the liberation of Baghdad would come.

Libya, of course, is not Iraq. It lacks the deep sectarian and ethnic divides that haunt Iraq. But Libya faces its own challenges. An immediate one is disarming the militias that toppled Qaddafi and replacing them with a competent national military as well as with effective local police forces.

That is a tall task. The militias see their weapons as guaranteeing their political clout as well as their safety. They may resist ceding power to either a national military or local police forces, however much both might be needed to keep order. That is a danger because revenge attacks, whether from Qaddafi loyalists or foes, threaten to touch off a cycle of escalating violence. The resulting instability would turn Libya into a magnet for criminals and terrorists.

A second challenge is to get Libya's economy going again. Here Libyans have the wind at their back. They have what the world wants--oil. The western companies that produce most of Libya's oil have all returned and restarted production. Libya should be producing nearly one million barrels a day by spring. That's almost two-thirds of where production stood before fighting began.

The third challenge is the hardest--to build a stable, effective, and legitimate political system. Most revolutions stumble on just this obstacle. Agreement on toppling the old ruler gives way to disagreement over what should come next. The competing news briefings that Libyan officials gave today on Qaddafi's death highlight the divisions that exist within the National Transitional Council. The complex ties of clan, tribe, and region further complicate things.

Libyans aren't the only ones that face challenges after Qaddafi's death. The United States and NATO do as well. Topping the list of concerns is tracking down portable ground-to-air missiles and other weapons looted from Qaddafi's military depots and sold on the black market. Should any of these weapons end up being used against Americans or Europeans, assessments of the wisdom of Operation Unified Protector will quickly be revised.


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The United States and NATO also need to confront the long-term diplomatic ramifications of Qaddafi's death. The passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was justified on the grounds of protecting Libyan civilians. In the eyes of its champions, it put into practice the norm of an international responsibility to protect.

To much of the rest of the world Resolution 1973 now looks like a bait-and-switch. Earlier this month Russia's ambassador to the UN dismissed an effort to punish Syria for killing protestors by warning of how back in the spring "the demand for a rapid ceasefire turned into a full-fledged civil war." The resolution failed to pass even though it did little more than wag a finger at Damascus. So rather than marking the birth of a responsibility to protect as international practice, Libya may mark its demise.

The United States and Europe may have to deal with this consequence sooner than they would prefer. Qaddafi's death undoubtedly caught the attention of Bashar al-Assad. But how will the Syrian dictator react? He might decide he doesn't want his lifeless body dragged through the streets of Damascus and go into exile. More likely, he and his supporters will conclude that their best course of action is to crack down harder on protestors to keep them from gaining an upper hand. What will the United States and Europe do then?

For the Libyan people, however, these are all problems and dangers that can wait for tomorrow. Today is a time for celebration. The tyrant is dead.


This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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

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