The New Iraq? Libya After Gaddafi

Gaddafi is dead and the Libyan people are outside in the streets, celebrating their victory against the 42 year dictatorial regime. Yet while the dictator is gone, difficult choices lie ahead for the Libyan people.

Libya has not become a “new Iraq” in the sense of western forces undertaking the same role they did in that country. Rather the West preferred to conduct a proxy war against the regime through the rebels. So, the rebels took the victory, killed the dictator and now they are expected to re-build their own state. This is no bad thing! After all, the coalition forces did an extremely poor job in Iraq and no one would expect them or want them to treat Libya as Iraq – mark II.

Yet, it would be naïve of us to think that the West will now leave Libya alone to stand on its own feet, and, most importantly, rely on its own resources! Therefore, despite the fact that the toppling of the Libyan regime took place under different circumstances and was undertaken by different actors than those involved in the downfall of the Iraqi one, the presence and influence of the West or at the very least of western interests – will be very obvious.

The complexities in Libya’s societal structures have gradually come to the fore since the capture of Tripoli. This has highlighted the fact that the lack of a coherent political agenda may well make the National Transitional Council (NTC) more subject to tribal divisions and/or individual economic interests, thus leading to political clashes even among the rebels, let alone among those remaining pro-Gaddafi groups that may keep fighting. Such developments could indeed turn Libya into a “new Iraq” in terms of the tribal conflict and multiple civil and ethnic wars. The object of such conflicts would once again be for the control of the energy resources and maybe even political power, whether (sub) local or national.

In this light, how different is Iraq 2003 from Libya 2011? It is surely very different for the West, NATO and particularly for the US in terms of the relatively low financial costs, the casualties, and thus far, without the long term catastrophic implications. Indeed, the way that the story in Libya has panned out so far is a great pre-election tool in Obama’s hands and, of course, the Libyan economic and energy sector is open for new investments and agreements.

It is true that Britain and France will come first in the race to exploit the economic opportunities in Libya. However, other powers like Russia and Turkey will also want to pursue their own interests in Libya and it is quite possible that the country will become the next arena for a regional and international (“soft”) power struggle.

Are the rebels able to overcome these emerging problems, and can they avoid becoming a “new Iraq” – a country overrun by civil and tribal violence? Unsurprisingly there is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. The results will depend on the ability of the NTC to manage the domestic politics and economy on the one hand and the willingness of the various domestic actors to cooperate for the greater good, on the other. It is known that Gaddafi’s rule benefited certain tribes because of their control over energy resources and so the future of the country’s economy very much depends on the arrangements that the NTC will make with these tribes and local or foreign companies. This situation also highlights the important role of international state and non-state actors and their perceptions of Libya. Do they see it as a state that should be developed and stabilized for the good of greater regional and international peace and security or do they see engagement with Libya as a useful means of enriching themselves or at least extricating themselves from the financial hole that they are in as a result of the global economic crisis?

In order for tomorrow’s Libya to succeed, two elements need to be prevalent both domestically and externally: cooperation based on common goals (at least domestically) and selflessness from all actors involved. As Realist theory suggests, even liberal cooperation is based on self interest and power (economic or other) maximization. In the case of Libya, this should at least mean that all parties would gain something and would not need to resort to violence. However, although this kind of cooperation would be ideal, the social dynamics of post conflict societies are very complicated, especially if the “aura of war” has not quite faded away, and there are still some groups willing to re-initiate conflict to resolve political disputes. Selflessness was never an option in politics and never will be. Since politics is by definition an eternal conflict, the best hope for Libya at the present time it would seem is for this “conflict” to be managed within acceptable parameters along with the various and often competing economic and territorial interests. In doing so, the Libyan people should also be more cautious in their dealings with and in their cooperation with western states. This is their time and, unlike in Iraq, the Libyans and their government have the opportunity to set the rules of the game.

Zenonas Tziarras, Global Politics (www.global-politics.co.uk), 23/10/11.

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