- For the first time in 42 years, the courageous Libyan people own Libya. But they face formidable challenges.
- It was Gadhafi, not NATO, who broke Libya, and NATO doesn't own Libya.
- Now is the time to help the Libyans replace the distorted image of the West fed to them for so long by Gadhafi.
Those who opposed NATO action to liberate Libya from Moammar Gadhafi are mostly quiet now, but some seem eager to see trouble ahead. "Now comes the hard part," they warn—and they are half right. The Libyans face complex challenges. They need help and they need American leadership.
Dismissing what Libyans have accomplished as the easy part shows little regard for what they've achieved and against what odds. It seemed almost miraculous that Misrata, particularly, held out for months against greatly superior Gadhafi forces. According to the interim government's health minister, at least 30,000 Libyans died during the revolution, in a country of six million.
True, the Libyans didn't win by themselves. Without NATO's intervention they would probably have been crushed. But even George Washington and his heroic soldiers had help from the French.
"The U.S. missed a rare opportunity to play a leading role in support of a cause that was widely admired in Libya and throughout the Arab world."
The decision to support the Libyan revolution was right, and President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deserve great credit for it. Nor was it wrong to refuse to commit U.S. ground forces.
But the failure of the U.S. to support the opposition more strongly in other ways was a costly mistake. The delay in recognizing the National Transitional Council, the continuing delays in getting them access to frozen assets, and the refusal to provide arms made the conflict longer and bloodier, deprived the country of some of its bravest potential leaders, and reduced our ability to secure the Gadhafi regime's surface-to-air missiles, now a major concern for us. Worst of all, having ceded leadership to others, we are less able to support those who share our values.
The U.S. missed a rare opportunity to play a leading role in support of a cause that was widely admired in Libya and throughout the Arab world. Mrs. Clinton deserved a hero's welcome when she visited Tripoli, like the one that British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy received. Instead she was asked why the U.S. hadn't done more. As one student said, "Many people feel that the United States has taken a back seat." That mistake should not be repeated now.
Forty-two years of despotism have left Libya with virtually no functioning institutions, a poorly educated population, and no civil society. The violence of the rebellion has created new motives for revenge and put weapons in the hands of thousands.
It was Gadhafi, not NATO, who broke Libya, and NATO doesn't own Libya. For the first time in 42 years, the courageous Libyan people own it. But they face formidable challenges.
Libya's most urgent need is to bring its many armed groups into an organized security force and to secure their enormous weapon supplies. This is a task best achieved not by force but with money, to pay the new security forces and to buy back weapons. And it could also provide jobs for dangerously unemployed armed men. The Libyans have money, but much of it is still frozen in accounts here and abroad. The U.S. should get them much more rapid access to their own funds, if necessary by advancing loans against still-frozen assets. We should also establish a security assistance program to help train and organize the new Libyan forces.
Another urgent need, given the estimated 50,000 wounded, is medical assistance. Even basic things like aspirin and antibiotics are in short supply. The U.S. has a program to fly some severely wounded Libyans to the U.S. and Germany for treatment. Much more could be done, perhaps comparable to the assistance given to Haiti after its 2010 earthquake.
That would also maintain the goodwill that Libyans feel toward the U.S. and help replace the distorted image of the West fed to them for so long by Gadhafi. The new authorities in Tripoli told Sen. John McCain last month that they would even be willing to reimburse the U.S. for the cost of this humanitarian assistance.
A third important initiative would be to encourage Libyans to manage their oil revenues so as to avoid the "oil curse" that has damaged so many countries, particularly Libya. The experience of Norway and Alaska, which have given their people a direct stake in their oil revenues, could show Libyans how the country's wealth can be shared more fairly among all the people. That would also provide a safeguard against a future ruler gaining too much power.
Finally, if Libyans want it, we should help them with basic constitutional, electoral and political issues. We may not always agree with their decisions. But we can urge that those issues be decided freely and democratically, taking into account the views of all Libyan men and women, including ethnic minorities. We should also encourage the development of civil society groups that support democratic and humane values.
Success for Libya will not come easily or quickly. But success doesn't require perfection. Even in Central Europe, where conditions are more favorable, many new democracies are still struggling 20 years after the end of Soviet rule. But the U.S. will gain much if the Libyans can create a stable, representative government that respects the rights of its people. And there are risks if Libya fails to do so.
There is much that we could have done to end the bloody fighting in Libya more quickly. Today there is much that we can do, without a costly military commitment, to help Libyans build a better future. This is leadership the U.S. can afford. In the end, we will pay a higher price if we do nothing.
Paul Wolfowitz a visiting scholar at AEI.