Paul Pillar

Atomized Libya

Revolution in Libya poses a couple of peculiarly difficult circumstances that are not being encountered to the same degree in most other Middle Eastern states wracked by popular upheaval. The immediate and obvious difficulty is the determination (at least so far) of the incumbent dictator to show no mercy and to spare no effort or blood to try to cling to power. In recent days this has become the prime conundrum of national security for western policymakers. They are appropriately seized with it. For President Obama, the issue is becoming partly a political problem of how to contain the growing and understandable urge to do something forceful on behalf of courageous, oppressed Libyans who have revolted, when the wisest course might not be the most forceful course.

While dealing with the immediate situation, policymakers also need to keep in mind another circumstance that involves a longer term problem: the thin and highly uncertain basis on which a new Libyan regime would be built. In any country the prospects for constructing a new political order depend in the first place on the institutions and the civil and political society that are found under the old order, and on the history that has molded the institutions and the society. Those vary significantly from country to country within the Middle East, and Libya presents some of the least promising prospects in that regard. During his more than four decades of power, Muammar Qaddafi has broken down just about anything that would provide a firm foundation for an alternative to his regime. And there wasn't much of a foundation to begin with, following uninspired Italian colonial rule and less than two decades of independence under a weak monarchy.

The weird political structure that Qaddafi constructed was designed to leave no basis for building any alternative to his personal dictatorship. In the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, as the structure is officially called, a set of people's committees supposedly runs things. Qaddafi himself holds no official position and thus, as he reminded the world in one of his rants during the current revolt, has nothing to step down from. The result is an atomization of political and civil society, which poses big challenges for anyone seeking a base on which to build a new order. The challenges were aptly described by Mahmoud Bousalloum, a graduate student involved in organizing committees to impose order and provide services in the rebel-held city of Bayda. “Our task isn't easy,” he said. “We don't have parties, we don't have a constitution, we don't have political organizations, we don't have an effective civil society. We have to create a completely new state and we have to do it in the middle of a war and revolution.”

This difficulty is another demonstration that any country's political culture, and the legacy of its political history, matter. New circumstances can create new history and can shape culture and institutions along with it, but past history still lays a heavy hand on the whole process. In Iraq, for example, although eight years have passed since the end of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist dictatorship, the behavior of political leaders and organizations still reflects to a large degree habits and frames of mind developed under that dictatorship.

It is still to the net advantage of the people of the Middle East, and of U.S. interests, for political change in the region to move forward, and this is certainly true in Libya as in other countries of the region. But the tenuous basis for constructing the next Libyan regime should be in the minds of western decision-makers as they deal with the current crisis. It should figure into calculations of costs and benefits of different possible courses of action. We need to be braced for what we, and the Libyans, will be in for once Qaddafi is gone, and to be prepared for discomfort and disappointment if the next phase of Libyan history turns out to be shakier than both we and the Libyan people hope.

Although a prolonged stalemate in which a rebel-held east confronts a regime entrenched in and around Tripoli does not seem to be what anyone is hoping for, it could have a beneficial side. It might give time for the nascent alternative governing structure taking shape in Benghazi to develop into something more than nascent. That structure could grow as a real government in the liberated east (where a substantial portion of Libya's oil resources, as well as export facilities, lie) and gain credibility as at least a transitional alternative to take over all of Libya once the remnant of the old regime, subject to international strangulation, finally dies.