Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year dictatorship is hanging by a thread, most of his family is either under arrest or in exile, and rebels are celebrating their impending victory in virtually every village, town and Tripoli neighborhood. It's like Iraq in March 2003. But things in Iraq changed quickly.
We know from that experience that now isn't the time for celebration. It's a time to worry about Libya's future. If the Libyan people don't learn from the mistakes the U.S. made in Iraq, they could repeat the violence that has wracked that country for the past eight years. Even now, more than eight years after the U.S. invaded Iraq to "liberate" the Iraqi people, the place is a scene of death and destruction on a daily basis.
In Libya, the rebels' Transitional National Council (TNC) is largely unknown both to us and to the Libyan people. So who is going to lead Libya after Gaddafi goes? It isn't up to the U.S. to choose a leader like we did in Iraq. It's not our country. And what were the criteria that the Bush Administration used? Somebody who spoke good English, like Iyad Alawi, or someone who reported to a little group inside the Pentagon, like Ahmad Chalabi? Maybe somebody who had been on the CIA's payroll?
The result was factionalism, sectarianism, and death. We can't allow the same mistake to be made in Libya. We can't just rely on former Libyan intelligence officers who have defected to the UK, on technocrats who have never run anything beyond corrupt ministries in the 1970s, or on professors who have spent the last 30 years sitting in comfort in Europe.
Now is the time for the international community -- the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League, and the African Union -- to engage with the TNC and with Libyan exiles, but most importantly with pro-Gaddafi tribal leaders to help the Libyans work out a coalition government of their own choosing and to pave the way for the country's first-ever transition to democracy. It can't be a fake democracy that keeps out the people we don't like. It has to be a real democracy that respects every point of view. And the decisions have to be made by the Libyans, not by us.
One of the major mistakes we made in Iraq was dictating who could and couldn't participate in the democratic process. It was wrong then and it would be wrong now. Banning Iraq's Baath Party and elements of the military only made large swaths of the populace hate us even more than the invasion already had. We prohibited some of the country's best and brightest from helping to rebuilt their shattered country. It made us look imperial, hypocritical, and anti-democratic.
We've participated in a relentless bombing of Tripoli in the past six months that has included civilian casualties. There likely will be some raw feelings even after Gaddafi goes. Now is not the time to dictate who will lead the Libyan people. Soon, probably in the next couple of weeks, it will be up to the Libyans to decide who will play and who won't. We should respect that. And we should promise the Libyan people that there will be no more Ahmed Chalabis.