Next Steps in Libya (Egypt, Tunisia, and Other States with New Regimes)

Qaddafi’s fall is certain to be accompanied by a wave of euphoria over the end of one of the most repellant dictatorships in the Middle East.  American strategy, however, cannot be based on a triumph of hope over experience.  We need to recognize that Libya -- like all of the other states that have become increasingly unstable since early 2011 -- is not going to suddenly emerge with stable politics, effective governance, security and human rights for its people, or an economy that offers jobs, development, and a fair share of the nation’s income.

Hope Will not Triumph Over Experience

We should learn from our mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Reforming a nation’s  Politics, government, economy, and security sector take years and regime change is only the first, faltering step in the process.

Democracy is a form of government and not a form of magic. What we call democracy in the US works because the gaps in wealth are acceptable, because government functions reasonably well, because we have stable and experienced political parties, a separation of powers, and checks and balances that rely on a Supreme Court as well as legislative and Presidential elections, a functional constitution, and a rule of law that limits the role of our police and security forces and protects human rights.

None of these things exist in Libya, any more than they as yet do on a functional basis in Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other state caught up in the wave of political upheaval in the Middle East. Only sheer luck will create cases where even a single country follows the pattern of the American revolution. 

The reality is far more like to be similar to the wave of political unrest in Europe in 1848: unstable regimes that quickly fade; and vicious internal political struggles as the loss of a dictator or repression allows ethnic, sectarian, tribal, and regional difference to surface and divide the nation.

We need to consider the very real risk – and probability – of elections that trigger deep political divisions and elect leaders with little real political experience and no experience in governance. There will likely be faltering economic reform, only limited improvements in governance, and new problems with security forces and human rights that quickly disenchant much of the population with its new rulers.  In many cases, the result will be a return to some new form of strong man and repression. In others it will be failed politics and governance for years until a leadership elite finally emerges that can establish new, workable rules of the game.  Economic reform will take years and perhaps decades, and have to race against the demands of populations that are 3-4 times what they were in 1950 and will double again by 2050.

A Decisive Case for US Aid

No US or outside efforts can eliminate these risks, or substitute for native leaders and political parties willing to put their nation before their own careers and faction. The most we can do is to foster a climate where we can help them help themselves. Hope will turn into failure in some cases in spite of our best efforts.

At the same time, we do have much to offer and very good reasons to offer it. Bad as our current economic problems are, it would be incredibly foolish not to offer aid to Libya (and Egypt, Tunisia, and any other states caught up in this wave of change.) There will be cases where limited amounts of US aid, a strong US embassy team, US security efforts, and cooperation with our allies can make a decisive difference – particularly if we have the strategic patience to maintain such efforts over time, accept the need for evolutionary change, and help countries do it their way rather than try to make them do it our way.

This kind of aid to Libya -- and every other state we can help move towards political and economic stability – will save us far more money in terms of a lack of future conflicts, struggles against terrorism, and energy export crises. Effective diplomacy, aid, and security assistance programs can play a critical role in reducing the threat Middle Eastern instability poses to world energy flows and the global economy, to moderate Arab states and Israel, and to homeland defense. Failing to provide that aid will not simply be penny wise and pound foolish; the price of such a US failure will eventually be paid in US and allied blood.

A Cost-effective Strategy To Help New Regimes and Political Systems Help Themselves

This does not mean issuing anyone a blank check, or offering major amounts of aid money before we really know Libyan and other country needs and capability to absorb such aid. It does mean immediate US efforts to reform what already works, or impose conditions in ways the host country cannot accept.

In practice, it means the following kind of carefully targeted US efforts, and ones that can be both far more effective and far cheaper than what we have done and are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq:

  • Rush to create a much stronger US Embassy team with consulates or other entities to ensure we can help countries deal with ethnic, sectarian, tribal and regional differences.
  • Only provide immediate, short-term aid when there is a clear imminent humanitarian or fiscal crisis, and working with European, Arab, and Asian donor states to make this as international as possible.
  • Work at the country level with the same mix of European, Arab, and Asian donor states to develop credible coordinated mid and long- term efforts. Avoid the mindlessly ambitious “transformational” goals set for Afghanistan and Iraq. In the case of Libya, seek a European and Arab lead to the maximum degree possible.  The US should limit its role in North Africa, shore up the lead in the Levant, and focus on Iraq and the Gulf
  • Do nothing by way of longer-term political, governance, security, and economic aid that the host country cannot credibly absorb and quickly come to help plan, manage and execute. Provide the kind of public input and transparency that ensure new,untrained governments have to consider all the factions in their country and that their people can hold the donor, contractors, and their own governments accountable.
  • Avoid any hint of Islamophobia while making certain that we do not support any form of true extremism. Rebuild our credibility in Arab and Moslem eyes without sacrificing real security concerns.
  • Work with all the factions in the country that will accept US aid to develop effective political parties and electoral systems without setting over demanding and dysfunctional standards the host country cannot credibly meet. Deal with moves toward democracy on an evolutionary basis and avoid provoking election and government formation crises that discredit change before it even begins.
  • Offer limited aid in governance, and only in-country aid. Avoid any mix of advisors and funding that reduces the need for new governments to do it their way, take responsibility, and see their limited talent pool diverted to aid efforts and contracts.  Recognize, however, that Libya’s lack of governance is uniquely great as a result of decades of Gaddafi’s strange, eccentric interference with the effective functioning of both his own government and every aspect of his economy.
  • Work through the World Bank and UN to get credible development plans that can deal with Libya’s lack of a modern economy, increase its petroleum resources, use Libyan and aid money effectively, and ensure that there is accountability and transparency. Where possible use Arab experts, supported by a strong US country team rather than Western ones trying to do it our way.
  • Do focus on youth (Libya’s mean age is only 24) and real jobs as keys to future stability wherever possible and do not lose sight of the need for near term stability. Accept the fact that economic reform and reliance on a shift to the private sector takes time, but is better than flooding money into a state system that can’t use it.  (The CIA estimates that the oil sector contributes about 95% of Libya’s export earnings, 25% of its GDP, and 80% of its government revenue.)
  • In the case of Libya, focus on the fact that the CIA estimates that a potentially rich Libya now has a average per capita income that only ranks 84th in the world, direct unemployment is well over 30%, a third of of the population were at or below the poverty line before the current crisis began, and decades of poor decision making distorted every aspect of the service, industrial and agricultural sector. Look for valid quick fixes using aid and Libyan reserves while laying the groundwork for larger-scale economic reform.
  • Avoid rapid new efforts to change their constitution, legal system and rule of law for them.  But recognize that Libya is a worst case because the September 1969 military overthrow of the Libyan government led to Qaddafi having the Revolutionary Command Council replacing the existing constitution with a vague Constitutional Proclamation in December 1969. He then had Libya adopt a Declaration of the Establishment of the People's Authority in March 1977. Libya is now  supposed to be a Jamahiriya (a state of the masses) in theory, governed by the populace through local councils – which supposedly indirectly elect a 760 person general People’s Congress.
  • Help the security and police forces learn how to operate without repression and violations of human rights. Defer in general to nations like Italy and France whose policing concept and paramilitary models work far better in developing nations than our emphasis on community police and formal evidence-based justice systems – reforms than can only come after new regimes become far more experienced and stable and there is a clear public demand for such efforts.
  • Limit military aid to reforming the kind of forces Libya and other emerging powers actually need. Do not fall into the trap of trying to build modern or large military forces where there is no threat. Do offer large advisory and training teams, and advisory efforts in the US that emphasis the role the military needs to play in accepting civilian authority, showing the proper regard for human rights, and creating targeted internal security efforts that only deal with real extremists, terrorists and threats.
  • Ruthlessly enforce far more a demanding new standard on USAID, the State Department, and Department of Defense in terms of controlling and monitoring funds, vetting subcontractors, ensuring money and manpower goes to the host country, and that no aid flows without validated requirements, detailed credible plans, transparency inside and outside the host country, and credible measures of effectiveness  -- all tied to an immediate halt in funding and the end of the careers involved when these criteria are not met.

Some Lessons About Outside Security Efforts

Finally, we need to create unbiased, non-partisan studies of the lessons of US and NATO interventional in Libya, and tie these to the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq.  We need to look beyond our own actions and work with our allies to evaluate the overall pattern of military and economic aid, and the process of slow escalation that eventually led NATO and several Arab states to fly some 7,500 sorties, send in special forces to train Libyan fighters, provide covert arms and financial aid, recognized opposition factions as a government, and essential shift Libya’s international assets to the rebels.

We do not need partisan praise or critiques of President Obama’s actions on the edge of any election year. We do need to determine the strengths and weaknesses of obtaining a UN resolution whose terms we had to keep stretching by the week; the way in which we cooperated with Britain and France; the value of the way our Arab allies helped; and the practical impact of our escalation in the use of force and aid.

We need to rethink what we really mean by humanitarian action. We need to consider whether quicker and more decisive action could have saved Libyan lives, but also vastly reduced the cost of the war to the Libyan people and economy in other ways. We need to look beyond sanctions and consider how to freeze the international assets of dictators.

We also need to rethink the way in which the President consults and informs the Congress of overt and covert intervention, and do so in ways that emphasize pragmatism rather than abstract exercises in law. Given today’s bitter partisanship, we probably also need to set the reporting date for such studies to some point beyond November 2012. It is not always other states that have practical problems with democracy.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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