Why Libya will not be a second Iraq

Obama, Cameron and Erdogan have it all wrong. Libya is an exercise in regime change but it will not be another Iraq.
Jeff Bridoux
15 April 2011

The spectre of another Iraq-like quagmire looms large over the Libyan battlefield. A recent poll shows that seven out of ten Britons fear that the coalition’s air intervention constitutes the premises of another Iraq-like conflict, extending over many years. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan voices similar concerns and warns that a prolonged conflict and a foreign ground intervention will inevitably lead to another Afghanistan or a second Iraq, where ‘a million have died and a civilisation has as good as collapsed’.


President Obama and PM Cameron attempted to calm these fears recently. Cameron declared that there will be no forced regime change in Libya because the UN resolution does not cover a foreign occupation of Libya. President Obama insisted that the US could not afford to go down the regime change road again, like in Iraq, where it ‘took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars’ to achieve some sort of result. Both leaders insist that the Western intervention and the enforcement of a no-fly zone is designed to protect civilians, as formulated by UN Resolution 1973: ‘to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory’.Flickr/BRQ Network. Anti-Gadhafi Protesters Demonstrate. Creative Commons.

Interestingly, the UN Resolution does not specify who the attackers might be. The target of the resolution being the Gaddafi regime, one expects that his forces are the legitimate targets of airstrikes. However, what would happen if rebel forces would attack a town which population is loyal to Gaddafi and hence potentially inflict civilian casualties in the process. Surely, the coalition would have to bomb the rebels to protect civilian lives.

The problem with the UN Resolution and the actions taken by Western governments to protect civilian lives is that they are anything but neutral. As Obama argues, the US will support the aspirations of the Libyan people, has intervened to stop a massacre, and will work with its allies and partners to maintain the safety of civilians. The US will also deny the regime arms, cut off its supplies of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Qaddafi leaves power. US secretary of State Hilary Clinton and British foreign secretary William Hague added on 30 March that arming the Libyan rebels could be an option if airstrikes cannot dislodge Gaddafi from power. If this is not regime change, what is regime change?arming the Libyan rebels could be an option if airstrikes cannot dislodge Gaddafi from power. If this is not regime change, what is regime change?


Regime change does not require the presence of foreign ground troops to be carried over. The United States President should know better since regime change has been practiced using proxies by his country for decades. Either overt or covert, the United States did and still does regime change when it was in its interest to do so, and did not whenever it clashed directly with the national interest. As Tariq Ali forcefully underlined, Libya is indeed ‘another case of forcefully vigilantism by the West’, while the crackdown on democratic uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen and potentially Saudi Arabia, do not deserve a frown or a supportive pat on the shoulders of those who are oppressed, not to mention an arms embargo or a non-fly zone. Demotix/JoAnna Pollonais. UN and League of Arab States Convene Meeting on Situation in Libya. All rights reserved.

Whether we like it or not, the West is engaged in a process of regime change in Libya, and its outcome is uncertain. If Gaddafi eventually steps down, it does not mean that the outcome of regime change will be an Iraq-like situation. Indeed, both contexts are rather different and what should have been warning signs of things to come in Iraq are potentially easier to approach in Libya, if dealt with correctly.

Firstly, Libya is not plagued by the same ethnic and religious sectarianism that characterises Iraq. Libya is homogeneous religiously and ethnically: The Libyan population is 97 percent Arab and Berber, and 97 percent Sunni. The current cleavage in the Libyan society is political in nature, between those opposed to the Gaddafi regime and those supporting it. Should Gaddafi be deposed, it will be essential for the post-conflict security and stability of the country to ensure the safety of his supporters, some sort of amnesty and rapid integration in the developing democratic political game. A lot of people have a lot to lose from Gaddafi’s fall. Those closest to the leader will lose their privileges for sure, but more critically, lower rank governmental officials and civil servants have their livelihood to fight for. An Iraqi-like purge of Gaddafi’s governmental apparatus would be a grave mistake as it would deprive the country of much needed experts who know how to run it, and alienate them against the new regime. To insert Libyan exiles in a commanding position would also be another mistake that will offend part of the population, who has suffered most during forty years of brutal dictatorship, and who supported the bulk of the revolt against the regime. The cleavage between pro and con Gaddafi will not threaten the reconstruction of Libya if all parties are involved in the political renovation of the country and if the UN plays an active role in keeping the peace and supervising the political transition.

Secondly, where Iraq was surrounded by Syria and Iran, two countries that were not friendly to American aims in Iraq and hence, tried to impede Iraq’s reconstruction, Libya’s neighbours, Tunisia and Egypt are on their way to democratisation and the new governments should be more receptive to the Libyan liberalisation than Iran and Syria were regarding Iraq.

Thirdly, the Iraqi adventure always suffered a lack of international legitimacy because of the way the U.S. and its coalition partners dismissed the UN and decided to go for it alone. In the case of Libya, the coalition can rely on a UN resolution allowing the intervention, and hence, whatever the outcome, the political transition of Libya will benefit from this legitimacy, as long as loyalists are also included in the process of course.

If we now look at the pillars of post-conflict reconstruction, namely the security, the state, the economy and the civil society, similar encouraging signs point at a fast recovery and reconstruction in Libya, unlike the Iraqi case.

Under the condition that the UN is in charge of post-conflict security, an insurgency similar to the one we witnessed in Iraq is unlikely. There is no doubt that some die-hard Gaddafi supporters will create trouble, but it is unlikely to escalate to the level of violence that plagued Iraq for so many years. If security and stability are achieved, progress in the three other areas of reconstruction has better chances to succeed.

In the political realm, the reconstruction of the state will require the organisation of a roundtable between the various Libyan parties currently at war. Again, preserving the rights of former Gaddafi supporters to participate in the new political game will be essential to succeed in order to achieve national unity; the key to the political stability of the country. Looking forward and not backward will be critical for Libya.


Flickr/Travlr. Oil Libya. Creative Commons

This political stability could be reinforced thanks to the energy resources at the disposal of the country. Oil represents 95 percent of Libya’s exports earnings, 25 percent of her GDP and 80 percent of government revenue. To depend on a single source of revenue is a weakness in terms of development and the perspectives to diversify the Libyan economy on the short-term are limited. However, oil sales will offer quick returns and attract much needed foreign direct investments. Nevertheless, on the medium to long run, the opening of the Libyan economy to international capitalism should be dealt with carefully. With unemployment rates at thirty percent and about one third of the population below the national poverty line, social and economic justice and a better repartition of riches must be very early on the agenda of the new Libyan regime. The type of democracy that will emerge in Libya will have to go further than the light-weight classical liberal democratic version with its focus on free and fair elections between competing political parties and its usual accompanying individual rights and freedoms package. Contrary to Iraq, economic well-being and addressing flagrant social and economic inequalities will have to be addressed from day one of the post-Gaddafi era.

Luckily, the Libyan economic and essential services infrastructure seems in running order, contrary to Iraq, where power, fuel and water shortages were the norm for years after the occupation started. Libya produces more electricity, natural gas and oil than it needs. Water is scarcer but the Great Manmade River project and desalinisation research projects seem to meet the current demand. Consequently, in contrast to Iraq, it can be expected that the population will still have access to essential goods and services, which will mitigate popular discontent and contribute to the security and stability of the country, and buttress the legitimacy of the transitional authority in charge of the political revamping of Libya.

Finally, similarly to Iraq, the Libyan civil society is so to speak inexistent. Like Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi’s fist smashed any attempts at contradicting his regime, leaving no room for civil society organisations to blossom. However, after the Ba’ath regime’s fall, Iraq witnessed the birth and development of a myriad of civil society organisations, which started to counter-balance the power of the Iraqi state, and play its watchdog role. Recent developments in Iraq have shown that sectarianism has taken its toll on the civil society but it did not manage to suppress its voice. With a young, essentially urban, and highly literate population, Libya has the potential to witness similar developments and benefit fairly quickly of the presence of a very active and buoyant civil society, without doubts, with the full backing of Western democracy promotion agencies.

Taken together, if the UN and the future Libyan political class, with the full support of the West, manages to work on and secure consistency of action in policies across these four areas of post-conflict reconstruction, Libya will not face the same fate as Iraq. Morally, this is unquestionably what the US, Britain, France and their coalition partners should aim at. And while they are at it, they might as well raise an eyebrow in the direction of Riyadh, Sanaa, Damascus, and Manama, or one can dream on, and hope that an uppercut will follow.


This project is funded by the European Research Council under the European Community's Seventh Framework programme (2007-13) – project grant no. 202596. The views expressed here remain those of the author.

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