October 20th, 2011
07:29 PM ET

An open door in Libya

By Christopher S. Chivvis and Frederic Wehrey for CNN

Editor's note: Editor's note: Christopher S. Chivvis is a political scientist and Frederic Wehrey is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that seeks to improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

The death of Moammar Gadhafi marks a major moment for Libya - and for NATO. It opens a new phase in the country's struggle for independence, one that carries with it some real risks that Libya's new leadership will need to work hard to overcome in coming weeks.

The Libyan people have every reason to rejoice at Gadhafi's death. In 42 years of rule, his Orwellian regime deprived them of basic human dignities and forced them to live in perpetual fear and uncertainty about their futures. His death is a clear opening to a much brighter future for the 6 million people who live in Libya.

It should also help keep Libya from falling victim to a protracted insurgency led by those loyal to the old regime. By depriving his supporters of their central rallying point, Gadhafi's death reduces the chances they'll be able to organize effectively to take up arms against the new government.

But there's also a risk that with Gadhafi gone, the divisions within the rebel movement could grow. For months, the rebels have fought alongside one another in a common struggle to oust their oppressor. But, as the focus shifts from the battlefield to the political arena, rebel leaders have to redouble their efforts to maintain national unity and move the reconstruction process forward together.  A critical goal is reconciling different views about Libya's future - whether secular or Islamist - and ensuring that Libya's different tribes and regions have a seat at the table.

The experience of post-war Iraq and countless other cases shows that the moment of victory can be one of the most critical moments for a successful transition.  The days and weeks after a victory like this are a golden hour that set in motion either a virtuous cycle of increasing security and economic growth, or a downward spiral into insecurity, factionalism and economic chaos.

Libya's new leaders have lots of work to do to cement the gains that have been won on the battlefield.

First, they need to consolidate control over the security situation. This means ensuring consensus not only at the top of the rebel coalition, but also ensuring that low-level criminals and gangs don't take advantage of the weapons that are still circulating to threaten the safety of Libya's civilian population.  Transforming rebel volunteers and the remnants of Gadhafi's army into effective police and military forces will be crucial to moving forward in other areas.

The weapons that are out there now pose a risk not only because they could be used inside Libya to make trouble, but also because they could get out of Libya and into the hands of groups that seek to foment violence and revolt elsewhere.  The possibility that Gadhafi's reputed stores of chemical and biological weapons could get into the hands of terrorists is particularly disturbing.

Second, the new leaders need to attend to urgent needs of the population itself, by ensuring that power and water are restored, and basic health needs are met. This step is essential to bolstering public views of the legitimacy of the new government.  Along these lines, the government must adopt a magnanimous stance toward Gadhafi's defeated supporters. Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, which has been severely debilitated by the fighting there in recent weeks, should be provided humanitarian relief and services as soon as possible.

Third, and at the same time, they need to move ahead with the difficult process of designing a constitutional democracy.  This process takes time and cannot be rushed.  It is essential that it be inclusive and generate the maximum degree of consensus in order for Libya to remain stable over the long run.

Libya's leaders will need to determine the new political system's degree of centralization, whether or not a parliamentary or presidential system is preferable, the level of autonomy of culturally distinct regions, the status of the security services system, and how the power of major ministries will be distributed among the various social forces that constitute the nation.

Libya's oil will generate resources that the new government can use to build its legitimacy by raising the standard of living across the country - that is, as long as the negotiations over how to share the nation's oil profits don't divide it in the meantime.

Fourth, the country as a whole will have to come to terms with those who remained loyal to the regime itself. This will require finding the right balance of forgiveness and justice. If Libya is to be free and whole in the future, it must ensure that no new atrocities are committed.

Libya's prospects for the future are bright if it can accomplish these critical tasks. As nation-building goes, it is a wealthy country, with a comparatively homogenous population and neighbors that can be expected to support its bid for freedom.  These factors should increase the chances that it stabilizes, and help mitigate the fact that a modern political system - not to mention democratic culture - will need to be developed nearly from scratch.

For the international community, Gadhafi's death shows that NATO's decision to provide support to the Libyan rebel movement is paying off. The question now is how to face the challenges ahead.

Right now, there is no clear individual or institution with the authority to coordinate an effective international role.  This is in part because NATO is not interested in another long-term commitment to nation-building, but it's also because the Libyans themselves, having fought for their own victory, are wary about a heavy-handed international role.

The international community will thus need to provide support in the form of dollars and expertise, but also ensure that it doesn't overplay its hand.  The victory the rebels have won needs to remain their own.

Filed under: Analysis • Diplomacy • Gadhafi • Libya • NATO • NTC
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