NATO Hopes to Pass the Buck in Libya, But May Not Be Able to Hand Off Responsibility

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“We do not see a lead role for NATO in Libya once this crisis is over,” the organization’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday. “We see the United Nations playing a lead role in the post-Gaddafi, post-conflict scenario.” He urged the international body to begin planning to take charge of a transition in Libya.

There’s little doubt that NATO would very much like to pass the buck of responsibility for Libya to the UN or any other taker as soon as possible. The same was true for the United States in Iraq in the late Spring of 2003.  But even if Muammar Gaddafi is removed from the scene in a matter of days or weeks — and that remains a big if — nation-building in Libya will be a long-term project, and things rarely go swimmingly when the matter at hand is the violent overthrow of a despotic order — “a revolution,” as Mao Zedong once sardonically observed, “is not a dinner party.”

Despite NATO’s wish to retire from the lead role — just as the U.S. did almost as soon as the alliance’s military intervention in Libya began — and let others supervise the reconstruction may be easier said than done. Rasmussen may even find himself getting intimately acquainted with former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule“.

Right now, of course, Gaddafi is stubbornly holding on, and NATO member states were exhorted on Wednesday by outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates to cough up more military resources to finish off the tyrant. The same day,  Gaddafi’s forces shelled the rebels’ western enclave of Misrata, killing 14 fighters who were trying to  break through the regime’s lines around the town. There’s clearly plenty of fight left in loyalist forces, it seems, and they have plenty of weapons with which to wage it. So even if a “decapitation strike” suddenly took  Gaddafi out of the picture, those fighting for him would still control more than half of the country and would retain the means to inflict considerable pain on the rebellion.

Nor is the rebel movement, by most assessments, currently a credible government for the whole of Libya. It is riven with internal divisions, held together primarily by the shared aim of ousting Gaddafi. And its administrative capabilities and ability to enforce security are questionable. That may be why Western leaders have begun pressing the Benghazi leadership to recognize that it will have to initially share power in a post-Gaddafi scenario with forces that have defended the regime. That’s in order to avoid driving the Gaddafi’s fighters into an insurgency.

But the divisions within a rebel camp, and the tribal patronage politics that has long been a feature of Libyan power politics (and could continue to do so on both sides of the divide) suggest that the scope for violent discord in the post-Gaddafi era is considerable, particularly given the prize of control over lucrative natural resources that, as Gaddafi himself can attest, are in themselves a source of power through patronage. So NATO may hope for the best, but it will also have to have a Plan B to prevent Libya from becoming a cauldron of mayhem after the tyrant falls. And that plan would likely require a long-term robust foreign military presence while a new order is gradually shaped — like in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. had initially hoped to leave within months of toppling its foe.

The more complex and dangerous the challenges of the Libyan transition appear to be, the more likely NATO is to face another problem encountered by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq — a paucity of countries volunteering to do the heavy-lifting of nation-building. If so, the very factors that drew European intervention in the first place — the fear of chaos in Libya choking off its energy exports to Europe but sending tens of thousands of refugees across the Mediterranean instead, and the moral responsibility it has assumed for the civilian population of Libya — may leave European NATO powers unable to pass the buck as swiftly as Rasmussen hopes to do.