The capture or death of a dictator can help close a curtain on a long period of tyranny. But consolidating such a huge political change has not been easy in Iraq, and it won’t be easy in Libya, either. Iraq's experience suggests that success will hinge on addressing three urgent issues during this transition:
The population must believe that the political change is real and lasting.
As long as Hussein was at large, most Iraqis, probably like most Libyans, had a quiet fear that the dictator might come back to power. They knew from bitter experience that if that happened, there would be a heavy price to pay for anyone who had cooperated in his ouster.
It is difficult for most Americans to appreciate the level of fear induced by decades of living under a regime of terror. The day after Hussein was found, a prominent member of the Iraqi government told me that his capture had finally permitted her to tell her children the truth. Crying, she recalled that her brother and their uncle, then only 18, had been killed on Hussein’s orders more than 20 years earlier because he had written graffiti on a wall at his university criticizing the president’s Baath Party. Although U.S. forces had killed Hussein’s two sons months earlier, until she knew that Saddam was in custody and his family accounted for, she remained afraid that he might return to power. Then, if his many spies learned that her children had spoken out against him while he was in hiding, the woman told me, she was certain that they, too, would be killed.
Many Iraqis told us that even after Hussein’s capture they worried — or in a few cases hoped — that he and his Baath Party would return. Only after his execution a few years later could Iraqis be certain that he and his family were finished. The Libyans, by contrast, know now that their tyrant won’t be back, even though his sons and some elements of his security forces remain at large as a possible rallying point for Gaddafi loyalists.
Someone has to provide security.
After a dictator is gone, ensuring security for the population is the most important job of any government. In Iraq, Hussein’s capture had two immediate positive effects. Within two weeks, my staff and I received — directly as well as through U.N. channels — feelers from members of the resistance suggesting that they were interested in stopping their insurgency. Although the signals were ambivalent, and it was unclear who the senders represented, I decided to respond positively. Unfortunately nothing ever came of the overtures. But in the two months after Hussein’s capture, attacks on coalition forces dropped so dramatically that, in February 2004, the United States suffered the lowest number of casualties in any month of the war until 2008.