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The Perils of Libyan Nation Building

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As debate continues on the scope and objectives of the international coalition's mission in Libya and whether it should arm rebels fighting Muammar al-Gaddafi's rule, policymakers and others are raising questions about post-combat priorities and the country's reconstruction.

The conflict's outcome will depend largely on whether Gaddafi's regime falls soon, >either through force or an international settlement, analysts say. If not, "America is in for a prolonged slog--and, more than likely, will bear more than a little responsibility for abetting a divided, dysfunctional country embroiled in a "messy, murky civil war," writes Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator.

Several analysts say defeating Gaddafi's regime will require boots on the ground, which the United States has ruled out for now. As CFR's James Lindsay notes, dictators don't relinquish power easily. "If Obama and his coalition partners really want Gaddafi gone, they will have to decide how far they are willing to go to make it happen," he writes.

Others argue that overthrowing the Gaddafi regime will likely be the easy part. Author Ronald Bruce St John says it's the creation of a post-Gaddafi political system that "will be a prolonged and messy process," with "no consensus among them as to the makeup of this future state."

There are also many questions about who the opposition leaders are, what their capacity is, and whether the country will fracture along regional or tribal lines. "What's visible in battle here is less an organized force than the martial manifestation of a popular uprising," reports the New York Times. The rebels have formed an Interim National Council of 31 representatives to represent them politically. Qatar, France, and Italy have recognized the body--comprised mostly of reformist regime technocrats and defected diplomats--as the legitimate government of Libya.

But none among the council representatives "is a truly national figure who can command allegiance in all provinces and across all tribes," Dirk Vandewalle of Dartmouth College told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 6. He says for the national council to emerge as a unified political body, the international community must press the opposition on how it intends to bring the different sides--pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya's west and anti-government protesters in the east--together in a post-conflict situation, and how it envisions the creation of national and representative institutions that serve Libya as a whole.

CFR's Richard N. Haass told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that whether or not Gaddafi stays or Libya remains a unified country, the future will require international physical presence--boots on the ground, in an "enormous, multi-year effort to help this country essentially become a functioning country." But "who will supply them in Libya, whether in conflict or in peacekeeping," asks Lord Robertson, former secretary-general of NATO.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ruled out U.S. ground forces for Libya, and the United States has set limits on its military role, handing over control and command to NATO. "U.S. interests in Libya simply do not warrant such an investment" on the part of the United States, says Haass. At the same time, he adds, it is far from certain "whether any other outside party has both the will and the capacity to introduce ground forces on a scale likely to make a decisive military difference."

Given the lack of civil society and any effective national institutions in the country, a post-Gaddafi Libya will face enormous governance challenges. Libya will need a new constitution, civil, social, and political institutions, as well as economic reconstruction. Currently, 95 percent of Libya's export revenues and over half of its GDP comes from oil and natural gas. Diversification and decentralization of its economy, and managing its oil wealth to avoid the resource curse that has undermined democracy in other oil-rich states will be important, say experts. Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says the United States should focus on "sending civilian teams to start addressing these... challenges of governance."

Additional Analysis:

Curt Weldon, part of a private delegation visiting Libya at the invitation of Gaddafi's chief of staff, says the United States should identify and engage with those leaders who are "pragmatic and reform-minded and thus best positioned to lead the country."

Background:

Read the Interim National Council's vision for Libya (PDF).

This article first appeared on CFR.org