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Op-Ed

The future of Libya

The conflict may result in various outcomes — the regime implodes, Kadafi is ousted by former aides or the country is split into two. But stability in any scenario will require continued Western attention.

April 18, 2011|By Rajan Menon

The fighting in Libya has reached a stalemate: Moammar Kadafi has proved far more resilient than his adversaries anticipated, and he has also exposed the limits of what can be accomplished by war from afar. If NATO decides to end the standoff by attacking his forces with greater ferocity, there's only one nation (you guessed it) with the requisite power.

This much is evident. What remains unclear is the sort of political arrangement the anti-Kadafi campaign will produce.

Here's one possibility. Kadafi's forces, pummeled relentlessly by NATO, shrink. This sets off more high-level defections (Musa Kusa, Kadafi's foreign minister and former spymaster, who fled to London recently, proves to be a trendsetter) and a flood of desertions. The regime implodes, paving the way for a transitional government run by the opposition and, eventually, a democratic system.

This is the outcome that officials in London, Paris, Washington and Brussels hope for, though they seem clueless about what to do if it eludes them.

This scenario is hardly imminent or probable, and even if it occurs, there will be more fighting and dying, with the ragtag opposition and civilians getting the worst of it. Indeed, additional suffering is the prerequisite for Kadafi's demise (whether physical or political) — the catalyst that would cause his lieutenants to see that he's finished and that they had best sue for peace and cut whatever deals they can before they are as well.

Meanwhile, the cost of creating a minimally functioning post-conflict Libya grows daily, as war destroys infrastructure, cuts oil exports and increases the refugee flow. These economic and social disruptions guarantee that Libya will require lots of care and feeding, even policing, once the fighting stops. The outsiders who will be called on to provide these services will work in a dangerous setting, and for a long time, unless their governments wish to leave chaos behind.

Here's a second scenario. Kadafi's senior civilian and military officials oust him and bargain for a power-sharing agreement, immunity from prosecution and the right to participate in politics. Out of civil strife comes national reconciliation.

This won't happen easily. It will take some pretty powerful people to depose Kadafi, which means that they will have plenty of blood on their hands. The opposition will balk at joining them in an interim political arrangement, and even if it comes about (because America and Europe cajole the Kadafi camp) it could soon come apart.

A third possibility is a bifurcated Libya: a Kadafi bastion arises in the west, encompassing the region historically called Tripolitania and its environs, and an opposition government takes shape in the east, in and around Cyrenaica. At least one prominent pundit, CNN's Fareed Zakaria, has already suggested this as a possible conclusion, adding that it won't necessarily be a bad one because Kadafi would control much less of Libya and much less of its oil.

Yet this is a Pollyanna prognosis. It rests on the blithe assumption that the two Libyas, born of a savage war filled with vendetta-breeding atrocities, will segue into a stable peace sustained by mutually accepted borders.

Still, such an outcome is not impossible — not much is in politics. Perhaps Libya's two halves won't coexist harmoniously; but they may well forgo war because their leaders, though not necessarily enlightened beings, have had their fill of carnage.

This ending would be almost as nice as the first scenario of a united, democratic Libya.

Alas, it is far easier for prognosticators to imagine benign partitions than for politicians to produce them. The historical record shows that partition is a bloody business, particularly when the parties are armed and loathe each other. Don't expect a velvet divorce in Libya akin to what the Czechs and Slovaks were able to fashion.

Even if a partition can be imposed from without (and, who, we should ask, will do this?), it will leave Cyrenaica with the larger share of Libya's oil. Tripolitania, whose tribes dominated the political order under Kadafi, will not readily reconcile itself to subordinate status. Having been forced to accept Libya's truncation only because NATO's bombs and rockets aided its foes, it will be tempted, sooner or later, to unify the country by force. But that is a contingency for which the eastern statelet will no doubt prepare.

In this outcome, given the two factions' abundant oil and strategic Mediterranean location, both will start building their arsenals and find outside patrons. This partition-gone-bad will unsettle the lives of Libyans as well as their neighbors' for a long time.

These are not the only possibilities, of course. One can imagine other futures for Libya. But this much is certain: Each, in its own way, will involve some combination of regime change, upheaval and nation-building under Western tutelage. The dust will not settle soon, and there will be plenty of it.

Those who think otherwise are engaging in self-delusion. There's no reason why the rest of us should do so.

Rajan Menon is a professor of political science at City College of New York/City University of New York and the author of "The End of Alliances."

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