The end of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime appears near. Regardless of one’s views on the wisdom of American intervention, that’s cause for celebration.
Indeed, celebration is the order of the day, with large crowds cheering and dancing in Libya, in front of the White House, and around the world. The giddiness and exultation is natural and understandable. And, in the case of Libyans who risked everything to reach this point, earned.
Still, sober observers would be wise to recall similar triumphalism and I Told You So’s at a similar stage in Iraq eight years ago, when Saddam Hussein was toppled.
This morning’s Washington Post declares: “Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s four-decade-long rule over the country was crumbling at breakneck speed as hundreds of rebel fighters swept into Tripoli and took control Monday of the symbolically significant Green Square in the heart of the city.”
The same paper’s lede for April 10, 2003: “Swept aside by U.S. troops who drove through the streets of Baghdad, President Saddam Hussein’s government collapsed today, ending three decades of ruthless Baath Party rule that sought to make Iraq the champion of a modern Arab world but left a legacy of fear, poverty and bitterness.”
Today’s New York Times: “Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s grip on power dissolved with astonishing speed on Monday as rebels marched into the capital and arrested two of his sons, while residents raucously celebrated the prospective end of his four-decade-old rule.”
Who can forget the giddiness when Saddam’s statue fell? When sons Qusay and Uday were killed? When Saddam himself was dragged out of his spider hole? Or the smiling faces of the purple-fingered Iraqis voting in their country’s first meaningful elections?
Before President Obama slips into a flight suit, it’s worth remembering that things soon took a turn for the worse in Iraq and it would be years before that fight began to calm.
That’s not to predict, much less hope for, a repeat in Libya. Despite Americans’ love of historical analogies in framing foreign events, they seldom follow neat patterns.
Libya is not Iraq. Most notably, this was a revolution by the Libyan people, not a foreign invasion. To be sure, this day would not have come nearly as quickly — if at all — without months of air strikes by the United States and its NATO allies against regime assets. But the Libyan people appear to have almost universally wanted Qaddafi gone and did much of the heavy lifting to make it happen.
Still, could something like the violence of post-Saddam Iraq repeat? Aside from those on Qaddafi’s payroll, it’s hard to imagine where a full-scale insurgency would come from. As Middle East historian Juan Cole observes, “Only in a few small pockets of territory, such as Sirte and its environs, did pro-Qaddafi civilians oppose the revolutionaries, but it would be wrong to magnify a handful of skirmishes of that sort into a civil war. Qaddafi’s support was too limited, too thin, and too centered in the professional military, to allow us to speak of a civil war.”
Libya already has a government-in-waiting with both international recognition and domestic legitimacy. This means that one of Iraq’s biggest causes of violence and instability — a government installed by outsiders and perceived as a foreign puppet — will be avoided.
On the other hand, there are reasons to question whether the rebel leadership body, the Transitional National Council, is ready for prime time. Last month, their military commander, General Abdel Fattah Younis, was assassinated under suspicious circumstances. That incident, as well as the subsequent dissolution of the TNC’s 14-member executive board earlier this month, raise real questions about the group’s internal cohesion and competency.
While the revolutionaries were united against Qadaffi, it’s far from clear what, if anything, they’re united for. And with their unifying enemy on his way out, they’ll need something more to bring them together to rule.
How will reconciliation with former regime elements be handled? How quickly will law and order be established? Will international peacekeepers be necessary? If so, how will such a force be organized and manned? When will elections be held and who will be allowed to participate? What form of government will be established in the interim? These are just a handful of the questions most immediately facing Libya.
Daunting though these questions might be, there’s at least one good reason to be optimistic that Qaddafi’s fall will not be like Saddam’s: the latter debacle is fresh on everyone’s minds. While NATO appears to have done scant planning for post-Qaddafi Libya, the Transitional National Council and others, including the UK government, have shown encouraging signs that they aim to avoid the mistakes of 2003.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This essay originally appeared at The Atlantic.