Lessons for US in Libya's transition: Avoid mistakes of Iraq, Afghanistan

In Libya's transition from dictator to democracy, the international community should learn from its experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia. The West should watch out for picking favorite leaders and should use leverage to push Libya toward inclusive politics and a viable oil industry.

Chasing Muammar Qaddafi out of Tripoli was the easy part. Transitioning from dictator to stable democracy is the moonshot.

The challenges in Libya are many and complex, from the development of security forces to creating jobs to establishing effective governing bodies. Yet stability and success will depend on one critical issue: whether the self-appointed National Transitional Council (NTC) establishes and sustains a legitimate and inclusive political process.

The last time Libya changed its leader? Through Mr. Qaddafi’s coup in 1969, just after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Just launching the political process in Libya, a country with no democratic tradition and few effective governing institutions, will be an enormous challenge. As the United States and international community consider how to best support Libya, there are some lessons from recent experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia from which they can learn.

The NTC is expanding its representation. But to be effective, it will have to attract support – or at least participation – from across all sections of Libya, including the western and southern regions of the country, some of which still support (and perhaps shelter) Qaddafi. He will remain dangerous until caught.

Given the historical regional rivalries and complex tribal structure within Libya, the temptation will be to focus on Tripoli and build a government from the top down. This was a mistake the international community made in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where national governments lacked legitimacy due to poor regional representation.

Libya’s new political structure should be built from the bottom up. The political process must both serve and balance competing political interests, giving all key parties a stake and voice.

The NTC has announced plans for an initial election in 2012 en route to a constitutional democracy by 2013. Getting there requires the emergence of local and regional leaders who can deliver meaningful results to the citizenry, particularly job creation, well before 2013.

For example, Libya suffers one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, with half its population under the age of 25. Development efforts, while incorporating outside expertise, must concentrate on employing as many young Libyans as possible.

As national figures emerge, we can hope for, but not expect, a Havel- or Mandela-like figure in Libya – a homegrown leader who might galvanize a nation toward unity and progress. In any case, we should not try to invent one.

Shortly after the American invasion of Afghanistan, the December 2001 Bonn Conference anointed Hamid Karzai as leader of the Afghan Interim Authority before he had demonstrated his viability where it counted most – in Afghanistan. The Bush administration also tried to put a thumb on the political scales when it transported Ahmed Chalabi back to Iraq after the invasion in 2003. He has been complicating political unity there ever since.

In Libya, the current NTC leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has gained respect inside and outside Libya for being as measured as Qaddafi was bombastic. While he has publicly pledged not to run for office in 2012, the international community may be tempted to encourage him to stay on. But he can’t be “our guy” unless he becomes “their guy.” The international community should in fact engage all Libyan leaders who are committed to participate constructively in an open and inclusive political process.

Though forming a new democratic government must be a Libyan-led process, the US and the West must use available leverage to ensure results and accountability from the emerging government.

In Bosnia, influence came through the political, security, and economic promises of European integration. While these exact tools are not available in Libya, political and economic levers do exist to ensure that the transitional government’s commitments are met and that it serves national rather than narrow interests.

For example, it is important for Libya to resume full-scale oil production and use that wealth to rebuild the country. However, natural resources must not become a source of corruption, instability, and conflict – the so-called “resource curse.” The inability of Iraq after years of political haggling to pass an energy bill has hampered both its economic recovery and political development.

The World Bank developed an agreement with neighboring Chad to commit its sovereign wealth for a broad public benefit, in Chad’s case, poverty reduction. While Chad ultimately reneged on the agreement, economic leverage on issues such as trade agreements and return of frozen assets can be a useful model to compel steps that enhance political stability.

What has fueled Libyans up to this point was their hatred of Qaddafi. Now the nation requires a viable political process to retain its momentum. Without it, as the world has seen in other places before, the revolution will stall before it reaches a sustainable orbit.

Nick Dowling is president of IDS International, a national security consulting firm. P.J. Crowley is the Omar Bradley Chair at Dickinson College, Penn State University and the Army War College. Both served on the National Security Council staff under President Clinton.

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