Moammar Gaddafi is dead, and the Obama administration can take a measure of credit for bringing about regime change in Libya. The dictator’s death came eight months after the start of military operations there — the same length of time it took us to track down Saddam Hussein after U.S. forces liberated Baghdad in 2003. When our CIA station chief told me at 2 a.m. on Dec. 13, 2003, that our forces had captured Hussein, I knew we had achieved an important milestone.
The parallels are striking. For decades, both dictators had been labeled terrorists by U.S. administrations, Republican as well as Democratic. For decades, each man had brutally oppressed his own citizens, often using cynical methods to exacerbate tribal and sectarian divisions. Gaddafi was found in a sewer pipe; Hussein was captured in a spider hole. Sic semper tyrannis.
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.
But the dictator’s capture did not solve Iraq’s security problems. The positive impact of his incarceration was soon canceled out by a large Sunni uprising in Anbar province and a simultaneous Shiite attack on three provincial capitals in southern Iraq. At the time, the United States lacked both the appropriate strategy and adequate forces to respond effectively to these challenges, a situation that was eventually corrected by President George W. Bush’s courageous troop surge in 2007.
In Libya, there is reason to be concerned about the security situation. A large number of militia groups are active in various parts of the country. As Hussein did in Iraq, Gaddafi was careful to manipulate tribal and geographical divisions to keep any opposition off balance. In many cases these Libyan militias reflect tribal loyalties, and there are strong threads of Islamic extremism woven into some groups. Who will have the authority and ability to disarm them? Unless some system is put in place to demobilize the fighters, there is sure to be trouble.
A new political order must be
This requires not only disarming most fighters, but also a plan to define the political framework on which to build some form of representative government.
The Iraqis got this part right quickly. On March 1, 2004, less than a year after the liberation of Baghdad, Iraq agreed to a modern constitution, one of the most progressive in the Middle East. It provides for basic human rights, including women’s rights, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and many other freedoms Americans take for granted. The document established the rule of law to replace the rule of one man, including an independent judiciary and the right to an open trial. Finally the constitution established a new political structure, with a bicameral parliament and a federal system.
This is not to say that all has gone according to plan in Iraq. The continued problems there, even after violence has fallen dramatically, show how hard post-regime-change political transitions can be. Even now, eight years later, Iraqi forces will be hard-pressed to maintain security in their country after U.S. troops leave.
In Libya, these types of challenges can be met if the attention of the U.S. and European governments does not drift away now that the tyrant is dead. As in Iraq, the United States helped bring about dramatic political change in Libya and therefore has a certain responsibility to help the process succeed. The first job will be to provide security until a trustworthy national force can be trained and equipped. This will probably require outside forces, perhaps from NATO or selected European countries. The American and other governments should also commit resources to help the Libyans build a political scaffolding on which a system of representative government can rest. Though our government has decades of experience in post-conflict reconstruction, an alphabet soup of nongovernmental organizations should also be encouraged to step forward to help the Libyans reclaim their country.
Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III served as the presidential envoy to Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004 and is the author of “My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope.” He is the president of World T.E.A.M. Sports.