As it turns out, the wave of democratic protests behind the Arab Spring will not break and recede on the shores of Tripoli. When the U.N. Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya in March, the stated reason was to avoid the imminent massacre of civilians who had risen up in opposition to Muammar el-Qaddafi. Yet in their very liberal interpretation of that mandate, the United States and its NATO allies made clear from the beginning that their interests and intent went much further. A brutal dictator was threatening to write a postscript to the Arab Spring democracy movements in the blood of his own citizens. And that meant Qaddafi had to go.
With rebel forces sweeping into Tripoli on Sunday night from three directions, President Obama signaled that moment was at hand. “Tonight, the momentum against the Qaddafi regime has reached a tipping point,” he said in a statement. “The Qaddafi regime is showing signs of collapsing.”
As reports mount that rebel forces have surrounded the Qaddafi compound and have even arrested his son Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the evidence suggests that the democracy protests ignited by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor has sent another Middle East dictator toppling from his throne. The spectacle will bring cold comfort to rulers still clinging to power in Yemen and especially Syria.
“Given that Qaddafi had ruled single-handedly for 42 years, the collapse of his brutal and repressive regime is a positive development in and of itself,” said Murhof Jouejati, a professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. “However, it has the important added value of giving a boost to democracy movements across the Arab world, and of sending a strong message to the remaining Arab dictators that you could be next. First and foremost, that message will reverberate in Damascus.”
As was evident in the aftermath of protests in Tunisia and Egypt, the exit of the dictator will only signal the end of the beginning, certainly not the beginning of the end. That will likely prove especially true in a post-Qaddafi Libya, where the uncertain transition to representative government will be complicated by the near total lack of strong governing institutions.
Much now depends on the actions of the Transitional National Council, the government-in-waiting that speaks for Libya’s disparate rebel groups. Over the weekend, Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, was in Benghazi meeting with opposition leaders to help plan for a democratic transition. Given the chaotic situation on the ground in Libya, administration officials fully expect a bumpy transition. Over months of contacts and discussions, however, they have been impressed by the good faith of the TNC leadership. After rebel military chief Abdel Fattah Younes was assassinated under murky circumstances last July, for instance, the council immediately launched an investigation under U.S. pressure, calming fears of a major fracture in rebel ranks. The transition council has also strived to include representatives of all major tribal factions in their deliberations, and in those areas where the rebels have gained the upper hand there have not been widespread reprisals or revenge killings to date.
Next week, France will call a meeting in Paris of the “contact group” of international players who will be involved in Libya’s transition. The European Union has already opened a diplomatic office in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, extending de facto recognition. High on the agenda of the contact group meeting will be calls by the TNC for Western governments to unfreeze more than $60 billion in Libyan assets to assist in the democratic transition and reconstruction of the country. There will also be consideration of an international peacekeeping force to help stabilize the country, though whether one will be needed very much depends on events in the coming days and weeks.
“Certainly we believe the United Nations and other players in the international community will have a greater role to play in Libya after Qaddafi leaves than NATO, and if there is a need for peacekeepers we think it would need to include a major component from Arab countries,” said a European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. To date, the Libyan Transitional Council has lived up to its promises to be as inclusive as possible, he said, and to adopt a charter embracing democratic principles and respect for minority rights. “The overall assessment of most Western countries is that we can trust these guys.”
As a test case of the Obama administration’s strategic approach to the Arab Spring uprisings, however, Libya offers a mixed record. A reluctant White House infamously opted to “lead from behind,” offering U.S. military support to the operation but for the first time ceding de facto leadership of the NATO alliance to Britain and France. The shortcomings of those major allies became evident as their defense forces quickly ran out of the precision munitions necessary even for a relatively limited air campaign, and in the end it may have been the presence of armed U.S. drones over Tripoli that proved decisive. Meanwhile, some NATO allies opted out of the operation altogether, straining the principle of collective action that undergirds the alliance.
Weighing on the other side of the ledger from those shortcomings, the U.S. and its NATO allies are on the cusp of realizing their overriding strategic goal: ousting Qaddafi from power and maintaining the momentum of the Arab Spring.
“While I think it was predictable that Qaddafi would eventually be forced from power, the lessons of the Libyan operation for NATO are in many ways disturbing,” said Kurt Volcker, who served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Bush 43 administration. The operation proves that the United States clearly needs to show more leadership of the alliance in the future, he said, and that Europe needs to take much more seriously its inadequate and rapidly declining defense capabilities.
“After complaining for years that NATO allies were using 'caveats’ that limit their forces’ usefulness in Afghanistan, we did the same thing in Libya, which is also a worrisome trend,” Volker said. “On the other hand, Qaddafi's fall will give new life to the Arab Spring, which offers the best chance the West has ever had to rid ourselves of the terrorism and resentment born of these failed dictatorships in the Arab world.”