The death of Muammar Qaddafi is the decisive event in the nine-month civil war in Libya. In the minds of most Libyans, the war could not end without his departure from the country or death on the battlefield.
As British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama both reminded us today, it is important to remember Mr. Qaddafi’s many victims, including the hundreds of Americans and other nationals who died in the Lockerbie terrorist attack of December 1988. Qaddafi was a tyrant who ruled mercilessly for over 40 years and left most of the people of his oil-rich country impoverished. His brutal, authoritarian rule extinguished all independent movements and denied the building over time of the civil society organizations that are the foundation of most countries and all democracies.
That is a critical fact in assessing the fate of the Libyan revolution going forward. While his death will likely effectively end the violent loyalist counter-revolution of the last few months, it will not quell all of those who still contest the revolution and wish to see it reversed.
The new Libyan government now has a chance to try to end the violence and begin the rebuilding of Libya’s shattered cities and villages. But the challenges ahead will be extraordinarily difficult. Tribal divisions, encouraged by Qaddafi’s cynical rule, will not be easily resolved. Restarting oil production, opening up the Mediterranean ports, and rushing humanitarian aid to the displaced will be immediate priorities.
Above all, creating jobs for the young unemployed who were the heart of the rebel alliance will be an immediate priority, as will be disarming the loose alliance of militias that defeated Qaddafi.
The international community must now act quickly to provide the essential outside support that will help to jumpstart the new government. Libya will need a supply of humanitarian goods, expanded trade credits, and longer-term economic assistance. It will benefit from political support as the new goverment works through a constitution, future elections, and internal reconciliation.
The United States, Europe, and key Asian countries must certainly help in a major way. But the Arab League should take the lead in rushing the immediate support the Libyan government will require to unite the country and turn it away from violence and toward reconstruction.
Today’s dramatic events confirm the wisdom of NATO’s decision, with UN and Arab League blessing, to intervene in the early stage of the civil war on behalf of the Libyan people’s army. NATO made the critical difference in denying Qaddafi’s forces use of airpower and in blocking and preventing a likely bloody siege of Benghazi. The British and French leaders deserve great credit for leading the NATO effort.
Mr. Obama was surely right to commit the United States, however reluctantly, to the NATO campaign. The Libya operation, like President Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, demonstrates that when powerful NATO forces are used for a precise mission with a clear and specific mandate and result, they can help them to liberate others without the debilitating long-term occupations that have characterized the bitter ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this sense, today’s liberation of the Libyan people from Qaddafi’s terrible and bloody reign, is a victory for NATO, too.
The first, critical phase of the Libyan civil war is over. The next phase of building a new nation and new identity will be just as important and perhaps even more difficult than driving the dictator from power.
Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics, and director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is also faculty chair for programs on the Middle East and on India and South Asia. He served as under secretary of State for political affairs from 2005 to 2008. Previously, he was US ambassador to NATO.
This piece also appeared on the Power & Policy blog at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.