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Qaddafi’s Death Is Hardly ‘Victory’

When I wrote this post back in early September criticizing the decision to go to war in Libya, the rebels just took control of Tripoli, and the Qaddafi regime essentially fell. Recently, the rebels killed Qaddafi in a firefight in his hometown of Sirte. His death is now being held up in the U.S. as a sign that the Libyan war is ‘won’, thus vindicating Obama’s decision as well as this approach of military intervention. However, to couch the recent events in Libya as either validation of Obama’s decision, liberal humanitarian intervention, or some sort of military victory is highly shortsighted. As Stephen Walt put it:

We can all hope that the Libyan revolution fulfills its idealistic hopes and avoids the various pitfalls that lie ahead, but it is way too early to start bragging about it, or declaring it the model for future interventions. And if Libya does go south, enthusiasm for the “Obama Doctrine” will fade faster than watercolors in the Libyan sun.

In fact, shortly after Qaddafi’s death, some recent developments largely mirror the warnings sounded by war critics. As I wrote in my critique of the decision to intervene, “the main criticism of the Libya war, was, and remains the unanswerable questions and uncertainty of what ensues in the aftermath of Qaddafi.” Whether the war produced a government with a far greater Islamic influence than Qaddafi’s, or one equally or more authoritarian, will be played out over time. However, some recent reports are proving those concerned with the unintended consequences justified in their apprehension.

Libya under Qaddafi was largely secular. Now, The Washington Post is reporting the leader of the Libyan Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel Ja­lil, pledged to replace the old dictatorship with “a more strictly Islamic system…” stating, “[w]e are an Islamic state….” The Post also reports of increased strain amongst Islamists and secularists on the TNC. This represents exactly the kind of worries put forth by those against the war. The potential now exists for Libya to become unduly influenced by Islamic elements of Libyan society, potentially leading to a repressive Islamic state and/or a new home base of operations for terrorists.

Moreover, and far more disturbing, is this story via John Glaser:

Fifty-three people, apparent Gaddafi supporters, seem to have been executed at a hotel in Sirte last week, Human Rights Watch said today. The hotel is in an area of the city that was under the control of anti-Gaddafi fighters from Misrata before the killings took place.

Human Rights Watch called on Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) to conduct an immediate and transparent investigation into the apparent mass execution and to bring those responsible to justice.

“We found 53 decomposing bodies, apparently Gaddafi supporters, at an abandoned hotel in Sirte, and some had their hands bound behind their backs when they were shot,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who investigated the killings.

This report should make anyone who supported the war recoil in horror and disgust. While even supporters of the war will admit the regime that follows Qaddafi may in fact turn out just as repressive, it’s extremely foreboding that this kind of massacre occurred just days after Qaddafi’s death.

Nonetheless, these two reports illustrate how the situation in Libya remains extremely dangerous, tenuous, and no closer to a final resolution. Rather, just like in Iraq, the upcoming months and years will decide the fate of Libya, leaving the past seven months – from the breakout of the war to Qaddafi’s death – as a preview for the real conflict. As Daniel Larison correctly points out:

While Gadhafi’s death will mark the end of Western military involvement in Libya, we should not assume that it means that Libya will not be wracked by violence for months or years to come. We should not forget that the worst of the post-invasion violence in Iraq came well after Saddam Hussein’s capture and execution. Just as it was Iraqi civilians who bore the brunt of the war over the last eight years, it has been and continues to be Libyan civilians who are suffering the most from prolonged conflict.

When dictatorships are violently overthrown, their successor regimes tend to devolve into some form of authoritarian government. Political culture, weak institutions, and post-conflict disorder all make it unlikely that Libya will be that much freer in the years to come than it was under Gadhafi. As in Iraq, it is questionable whether the possible gains will be worth the real losses that have already been and will continue to be suffered. As in Kosovo, which is often wrongly held up as a model of “successful” intervention, the post-war regime is liable to be criminal and corrupt. Twenty years ago, the liberation of Eritrea and Ethiopia from the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu was an inspiring story that very soon degenerated into authoritarianism and war. There is no reason to think that Libya’s story will be all that different.

Image via flickr user RMondolfi

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