What Washington Owes to Libya

The administration made the choice to become involved, and now it must see things through to the end.

In light of the recent election results in Libya, should former secretary of defense Robert Gates reassess his initial opposition to the intervention? Because a number of the worst-case scenarios for Libya never materialized, some are arguing that this discredits the warnings delivered by those who counseled against getting involved in the first place. This would be a mistake.

In setting out his arguments, Gates (and others who shared his view both within and outside the administration) focused on examining all possible outcomes—not just the most optimistic ones. One would hope that every time a president considers the use of military force, there is a Bob Gates in the inner council playing exactly this role. By focusing on all the possibilities, Gates ensured that the president and other members of the national-security apparatus made a final decision after careful consideration.

The Libya episode could be contrasted with the run-up to the Iraq war during which, based on the various memoirs that have been released by the participants, the various downsides to an Iraq operation were never clearly laid before the senior decision makers—never forcing them to consider whether going ahead would still be "worth it" if the less optimistic scenarios became reality. By raising his objections, Gates guaranteed that the president, in making his choice, would be aware of the ramifications of intervening, especially if things went wrong.

After all, there are no guarantees in anything; any course of action (or inaction) carries with it its own sets of risks and opportunities. Policy choices, in the end, are judgment calls.

But the course of events in Libya should also remind U.S. policy makers of the large number of factors beyond Washington's control. In backing the rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi, the United States gambled that anti-American, pro-Al Qaeda forces would not rise to the fore—a gamble that, so far, has seemed to pay off. But it is not an outcome that could have been scripted. Nor could the United States have engineered the apparent victory of Mahmoud Jibril's National Forces Alliance, which is likely to end up with a good bloc of seats in the new parliament, ahead of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Development party.

Having become involved in Libyan affairs, however, a version of Colin Powell's “Pottery Barn” rule now applies. Libya is not "broken," but the victory of moderates over Islamists—reversing a trend that has been dominant in other elections in the Arab world—means that the United States has a stake in ensuring the success and viability of the Jibril coalition.

Jibril's ascendancy calls to mind events in Belarus twenty years ago. When part of the Soviet Union, Belarus was controlled by some of the most doctrinaire members of the Communist Party, who strenuously resisted even the modest attempts at liberalization that were present in other parts of the country. But as the Soviet Union began to collapse, Belarusian voters entrusted the future to liberal politicians, including the man who became the chairman of the parliament, Stanislav Shushkevich. People placed their hopes in the reformers to bring about a better life. They were disappointed. In 1994, Shushkevich was ousted from office, and the path was paved for the victory—in what were free elections at the time—for Alexander Lukashenko, who promised to restore order and living standards and who has ruled Belarus ever since.

Jibril could end up becoming the Shushkevich of Libya: the first leader after the fall of a dictatorship who, unable to deliver on promises of a better life, ends up being replaced by a successor less committed to democracy (and perhaps less interested in maintaining good ties with the West.)

There is also an ideological component as well. Given the election results in other parts of the Arab world, the results in Libya seemed to indicate an initial preference for a more moderate, somewhat more secular approach to the question of Islam and politics. But this consensus is not necessarily an enduring one. Islamists in Libya did not have the ability, during the Qaddafi years, to organize, even clandestinely, or to gain popular approbation for providing a wide array of social services, as was the case in Egypt. But they received enough votes in the recent elections to form a credible opposition—and they will be in a position to critique every misstep of the new government.

Just as Lukashenko used the failings of the Shushkevich government in Belarus to question the whole premise of Western-style liberal democracy, so too the Islamists will point to every setback encountered by Jibril's alliance as proof of the incompatibility of Western-inspired liberalism with an Islamic society such as Libya. Washington cannot prop up Jibril, but it can learn from its mistakes in the post-Soviet space (in Belarus in the 1990s and in Ukraine following the 2004 victory of Viktor Yushchenko) that not helping pro-Western leaders demonstrate concrete and tangible results to their populations is detrimental to Western interests.

Part of Gates's warning was that involvement in the Libyan rebellion would mean Washington would have to become more involved in Libyan affairs—at a time when many in the national-security establishment would prefer concentrating on the pivot to Asia. Having made the choice, the administration now must see things through to the end.

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