What Should The U.S. Do Next In Libya?

  • Libyan rebels remove the green flags from poles at the Abu Salim square in Tripoli on Aug. 26 after the opposition forces announced the transfer of their leadership to the capital.
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With Moammar Gadhafi and his regime driven from their strongholds in Tripoli, the most pressing question now is whether the rebels will be able to set up a government and establish order in the capital and the rest of Libya.

In their battle so far, the rebels have been boosted by NATO air power. Western nations have also been providing political and diplomatic backing to the rebel leadership, known as the Transitional National Council. And the U.S. and European states say they are prepared to return Libyan assets that were frozen in the final months of Gadhafi's rule.

But beyond that, assistance may be limited. There's no sign that the U.S. or Europe has any interest in sending ground troops to help stabilize Libya. Some economic help is considered likely, but the amount may not be large.

"It's really going to be up to the Transitional National Council and the people in Libya themselves, but that's a very difficult situation to be in," says Nora Bensahel, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank.

"In the U.S. and among the NATO allies, there's no real interest in putting in substantial forces to aid in the transition," Bensahel said.

The Next Step

French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Mahmoud Jibril, the TNC's prime minister, in Paris on Wednesday to discuss plans for Libya's future. All that was announced, however, was a round of further talks involving more countries next week.

Some planning has been done at the State Department, the National Security Council and international bodies about how to handle the aftermath of Gadhafi's ouster. But it appears that neither the U.S. nor Europe is eager to get deeply enmeshed in what may be an indefinite period of recovery.

"The only thing that every country involved in the intervention agrees on is that somebody else should take the lead on post-Gadhafi planning," says Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Prepared For Victory?

Documents leaked from the Transitional National Council suggest that it is well aware of the hazards of post-conflict reconstruction. A detailed draft constitution calls for the election of a national assembly within 20 months.

"In a sense, they've done more planning and have a more capable government-in-waiting than many civil wars," says Zenko.

The TNC's transition planning suggests it has learned a lesson from Iraq about the importance of establishing security right away and not allowing violence to spiral out of control.

"There's a window of opportunity for nation-building, where a government has to step in and meet people's needs, first of all for basic security, and then things like trash collection and electricity," says Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp. "The documents show that the TNC is aware of that."

For Further Reading

Lessons of the Libya Intervention (Brookings Institution)

Libya Will Need Help After Gadhafi (Center for American Progress)

Nation-Building After Gadhafi (Foreign Affairs)

Post-Gadhafi Instability in Libya (Council on Foreign Relations)

Why Libya Doesn't Equal Success for NATO (Foreign Policy)

Establishing Order

But making good on such promises, Wehrey says, is an entirely different matter. Libya is a country where the kind of civic institutions needed to create and maintain order have been mostly wiped out or weakened by Gadhafi.

The Transitional National Council has had factional rivalries itself and now faces the difficult job of establishing a national government that is not seen as favoring one region or tribal group over any other.

The rebels — from both the east and the west of the country — have been united by the goal of deposing Gadhafi. Once he is captured or killed and is no longer a threat, the rebels could begin to battle among themselves for power.

After more than 40 years of rule by Gadhafi, there's also the possibility of revenge killings, or criminals taking advantage of a chaotic situation.

Many arms depots have been looted in recent days.

"Without external assistance, it's going to be very hard for the Transitional National Council, which doesn't have a lot of capacity, to establish security," Bensahel says.

Libya's Chances

Although he's troubled by the current looting, Wehrey says Libya has certain advantages compared with other countries emerging from conflict in recent years. Its neighbors supported the campaign against Gadhafi and aren't expected to meddle in its internal politics in the same way that Iraq's neighbors did.

Libya's prewar per capita income was higher than that of Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, and its economy has suffered less devastation as a result of war and sanctions.

The fact that Libya has oil available — as well as tens of billions in frozen assets in Western bank accounts and property — leaves open the possibility that a new government will have the resources necessary to establish itself.

It may not get much help beyond that. U.S. officials have used frozen assets in this country as a carrot to try to reduce friction within the TNC factions, says Bensahel of the Center for a New American Security.

The Obama administration may be able to convince Congress that it would be a good investment to follow up on the military operations in Libya with financial aid, she says. But with foreign aid budgets already on the chopping block, Libya isn't likely to get much beyond the release of its blocked assets.

Libyans In The Lead

There's a possibility that European nations will invest more. Libya lies just across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy, and refugee flows will be an ongoing concern. Europe also relies more on Libyan oil than does the U.S.

"It's in their backyard, essentially," says Wehrey, the RAND analyst.

But Bensahel cautions that neither American nor European officials are likely to summon "the political will" to intervene militarily if Libya does sink into violence. Defense budgets are down and public opinion has turned against open-ended engagements.

The African Union doesn't have the resources to send in a stabilizing force, either. Libya, under Gadhafi, was its single-largest contributor.

There appears to be a consensus within the international community, analysts say, that Libyans will have to take the lead in securing and rebuilding their own country.

"This time around, the U.S. is not going to take the lead," Wehrey says.

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