Libya 2011: Now Comes the War for Order

Austin Bay

8/24/2011 12:01:00 AM - Austin Bay

Gun battles in Tripoli's suburbs signal the death throes of Muammar Gadhafi's dictatorship. Regime change is succeeding, albeit slowly and with needlessly protracted agony.

The honest understand that the Libyan War of 2011 is about regime change -- the termination of four decades of megalomaniacal misrule, torture, corruption, tyranny, terrorism and genuine warmongering. Col. Gadhafi, like Iraq's megalomaniacal Saddam Hussein, imprisoned his own country, to the benefit of favored cronies and clans. He also waged imperialist war on vulnerable neighbors, invading and occupying northern Chad, including the Aouzou Strip with its uranium mines. (Yes, he, too, dreamed of a nuclear arsenal.)

Gadhafi armed and financially supported proxy forces throughout Africa. To rattle the British (and likely with the encouragement of the Soviet Union), he supplied the Irish Republican Army with weapons. He is ultimately responsible for the terror bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people.

So good riddance. Would that Ronald Reagan had finished him in 1986, when U.S. aircraft bombed Libya in retaliation for a Gadhafi-directed terror attack on American soldiers in Berlin. However, the Cold War and Gadhafi's relationship with Moscow constrained American military and political options.

In 2011, NATO's political hesitancy and vacillation by Western leaders extended the war, and that extension led to more civilian casualties and deaths. The conflict became a curious war of attrition -- needlessly, in my view, given NATO's technological advantages and the rebels' willingness to fight Gadhafi's heinous regime.

Informed historians, and people who actually wanted to protect Libyan civilians from Gadhafi's depredations, will eventually condemn as a terrible mistake the U.S. decision in April to withdraw USAF AC-130 gunships. The AC-130 combines devastating precision aerial firepower with over-the-battlefield loitering capability -- exactly what the rebels needed in both urban combat (for example, the siege of Misrata) and in open terrain against Gadhafi's motorized forces.

However, U.S. President Barack Obama's domestic political needs and looming re-election campaign trumped the battlefield advantages of USAF gunships. Obama could not bring himself to call the Libyan War a war, which it obviously is. This was a too-clever-by-half rhetorical attempt to avoid warranted comparisons with his regime-changing predecessor, George W. Bush, and placate his left-wing political base, which is deeply invested in damning Bush's Global War on Terror.

Still, toppling a murderous dictatorship when and where it can be done is a success well worth the effort. After dallying a long and bloody month, President Obama did decide to intervene, and that was the right decision. The Libyan rebels deserved U.S. support and, though Gadhafi loyalists continue to resist, certainly earned their victory.

Now the war for order begins, a struggle to define the new terms of modernity in Libya. Like Saddam, Gadhafi leaves a political and cultural vacuum. He and his cronies were the political class.

The Libyan rebels face numerous problems. They divide along regional, political, economic and ethnic lines. There is no single rebel army -- there are anywhere from four to seven, depending on how one defines army. Independent forces led by commanders only vaguely responsible to higher authorities are difficult to control; unrestrained, they may seek savage retribution against former regime loyalists.

Their continued independent existence could also seed renewed civil war. Moreover, no one victorious general or political leader has emerged as a national leader, though the Transitional National Council has proved to be a quasi-representative forum capable of handling adversity and competing rebel interests. With committed international support, it could be the kernel of a democratic government.

Fears of factional fighting, al-Qaida intrigues, militant Islamist takeover and Iranian finagling are legitimate fears, but rampant pessimism is an error. The rebels' common investment of blood, toil, sweat, tears and bullets provides a common political basis for rebuilding their country as something other than a tyranny.

Iran has been at war inside Iraq since 2003 -- that is why Iraq remains unstable. Libya's most immediate neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, need a stable Libya. They have their own revolutions to attend to, thank you.