April 21, 2011

Libyan rebels have made it clear that any proposal to cease fighting and end their current battle against the Libyan government must include the removal of Moammar Gaddafi. President Obama, along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, has repeatedly called for the removal of this violent dictator. The objective is clear. And Libya’s future is being determined by a civil war, one in which we unarguably have a hand.

In a speech last month at the National Defense University, President Obama carefully distinguished between the administration’s approach in Libya and America’s experience in Iraq. Referring to overthrowing Gaddafi by force, he stated: “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. . . . [B]ut regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”

For one thing, it is not at all clear whether the president will have the luxury of achieving his political objectives without the application of more force. More important, the president’s statement reflects a fundamental misunderstanding that may have serious implications for the way ahead.

Regime change in Iraq did not take eight years. It was accomplished in a matter of weeks. What consumed eight years was the aftermath of regime change: the still ongoing process of transforming Iraq into a self-governing, reasonably secure, democratic society.

Failing to recognize that the hardest part is post-regime change raises the question of whether we have planned for what NATO and others will do if we in fact succeed in our policy objective of showing Gaddafi the door.

Certainly, it would be wonderful if the transitional leadership turns out to be a collection of Thomas Jeffersons and Edmund Burkes who quickly fashion a constitution that embodies freedom and civil rights for all. What we have now, though, as brave and committed as the Libyan opposition might be, is a collection of former regime officials, unelected Benghazi intellectuals and returning expatriate dissidents.

We must acknowledge the real possibility that Gaddafi’s departure will be followed by continued violent resistance carried out by his supporters or bloody score-settling by the victorious rebels. The staying power of Gaddafi’s forces a month after the NATO intervention began suggests that the current fight, largely seen as democrat vs. oppressor, might have a darker tribal underlay. And with arms now generally available because of the weapons caches that both sides have accessed, a tribal-based round two could be dark indeed.

In the days immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein, looting and disorder rapidly degenerated into an insurgency. That outcome cannot be excluded as a possibility in Libya. While Egypt has been progressing along a relatively orderly transition to civil society, that process has been overseen by a powerful military, which managed President Hosni Mubarak’s exit from power and enforced a disciplined framework for establishing more democratic institutions. Success in Egypt is far from guaranteed, and the army could falter in its self-appointed role, but this is a country with a strong national identity, a national history and strong national institutions.

If Gaddafi falls, it will be because his army and all other existing institutions of national power — corrupt as they might be — have been broken. And at this stage, it is difficult to see what surviving indigenous institution can manage a transition of governance in Libya.

We may tell ourselves that Gaddafi’s ouster will end our mission. Optimists can point to the fact that Libya is more ethnically and religiously homogeneous than, say, Iraq, but it is also more tribal than most Arab societies. As brutal as he has been, Gaddafi has still had to respect tribal dynamics to sustain his rule. Is the United States confident that the dominant narrative today, of democrats vs. oppressor, will continue to play out — and will not be overtaken by latent ones such as tribe vs. tribe, haves vs. have-nots or, worse, Islam vs. “crusaders”?

If disorder and disarray follow Gaddafi’s ouster, will humanitarians be prepared to stand by while the blood of retribution is spilled in the streets; or anarchy reigns; or society disintegrates; or a terrorist haven, famine and disease emerge? Whatever one’s view about the wisdom of embarking on our coalition effort in Libya, prudence suggests we begin serious planning about what happens when we win — including what effort and resources and time will be required.

Michael Chertoff was secretary of homeland security from 2005 to 2009 and is managing principal of the Chertoff Group, a security and risk-management firm. Michael V. Hayden was director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009 and director of the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005; he is a principal at the Chertoff Group.