Paul Pillar

The End of the Beginning in Libya

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Winston Churchill, 10 November 1942

Churchill's words were inspired by events in a part of the world in the headlines today. He was referring to the allied victory a few days earlier at El Alamein, which—along with Operation Torch, the U.S.-led landings in Morocco and Algeria, that began two days before Churchill's speech—turned the tide of war in North Africa permanently against the Axis. The British Eighth Army was pushing the Germans from Egypt into Libya about the time Churchill was speaking. Three days later the British and their allies took Tobruk. After another week they captured Benghazi, the seat of this year's rebellion. Tripoli fell two months later.

A sense of relief was understandable, as was the restrained nature of the prime minister's optimism. Until then, World War II in the European theater had been three years of nearly uninterrupted setbacks at the hands of the Nazis. (A later Churchill statement: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”) The euphoria that accompanies the overthrow of dictators in the Middle East these days seems to be less restrained. The celebratory expressions in western capitals, including Washington, were heard even as forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi were still resisting in Tripoli. Even if that resistance is soon extinguished, the recent histories in the neighboring countries of Tunisia and Egypt ought to be sufficient reminder that overthrow of the dictator is at most the first step in the establishment of a new political order. And if we need another reminder, there also is the not-quite-so-recent history of declaring Mission Accomplished in Iraq—which marked the end of the beginning of the Iraq War.

Fortunately, there seems to be no prospect in Libya of U.S. troops getting sucked into another counterinsurgency. But the role of the western powers in facilitating the current result raises important issues, first of Pottery-Barn-rule responsibility for fixing a broken nation and second of how to discharge that responsibility in a way that does not entail excessively costly and counterproductive external involvement.

The nation involved is very badly broken, largely because Qaddafi's 42-year rule left so little in the way of institutions, procedures, leaders or political forces that can be used to build a replacement order. The Transitional National Council has said some of the right things about trying to avoid an Iraq-style breakdown of order and public services, but expect major questions in the weeks and months to come about the ability or inability of new rulers to deliver on those words. Expect major questions as well about the severe divisions among the rebel elements (severe enough to have taken a fatal turn as the civil war was in progress), about the role and influence of Islamic extremists and about vengeance and score-settling against those associated with the old regime. Over the longer term, expect questions and doubts about whether the society, economics and politics in a new Libya can provide a way of life that avoids the alienation so prevalent in the rest of the region.

However these questions are answered, there will still be the longer-term damage to U.S. credibility, and to the hope of getting other states off paths of terrorism and weapons proliferation, resulting from the United States effectively renouncing an earlier understanding with the Libyan government of the day. There also will be the memory of the embarrassingly chaotic and hypocritical (in the sense of pretending that regime change was not the objective) western decision making that led to the military intervention. Those ineradicable parts of the Libya story will provide reasons to worry, but in the shorter term there will be more than enough reasons to worry within Libya itself.