If Iraq is a textbook example of everything that can go wrong with a military intervention, Libya is a model for what can go right. It cost US taxpayers $800 billion to topple Saddam Hussein and to try to run Iraq in the disastrous years that followed. Nearly 4,500 Americans lost their lives, along with an estimated 100,000 Iraqis. By comparison, the no-fly zone in Libya that deposed Moammar Khadafy cost US taxpayers just $1 billion. No Americans lost their lives. Human rights groups estimate that fewer than 100 Libyan civilians were killed by NATO bombings, an astonishingly low number for a seven-month air campaign.
But the best thing about the Libyan intervention — about which this page expressed deep reservations beforehand — is that Libyans themselves were at the center of it. The no-fly zone supported an uprising they had already begun. When the Libyan government fell, Libyan citizens took up the slack, policing their own streets and staffing their own hospitals. While some Western diplomats argued that Libya could not succeed without international peacekeepers on the ground, Libya has made do without them. Though tribal conflicts, crimes, and family feuds have broken out, local leaders have emerged to tamp down the violence.
“They are like the minutemen of New England,” said William Lawrence, North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “They are defending community interests, sometimes against other communities. But they do much better than US soldiers could.”
There is a middle ground, Libya teaches us, between isolationism and invasion. Just because the world refrained from sending soldiers to Libya doesn’t mean it didn’t offer support. Foreign governments helped out by releasing $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets, securing Libya’s stockpile of chemical weapons, coordinating the sale of 60 million barrels of oil from Libya’s emergency reserves, and issuing an Interpol arrest warrant for Khadafy and his son Saif when they were still at large. Later, foreign powers helped Libya’s transitional government design an inclusive political process that recently resulted in the most liberal election results the Arab Spring has seen so far.
To be sure, the fall of Khadafy has had unpredictable consequences; arms flowing out of Libya are likely fueling violence in neighboring Mali. And Libya still has a host of serious challenges, ranging from lawlessness to abuses by militias. The arrest of Saif Khadafy’s international defense lawyer by the militia that is holding him was worrisome. (She has since been released.) So is the apparent kidnapping of the president of Libya’s Olympic Committee.
There is a middle ground between isolationism and invasion.
But the situation in Libya is far more hopeful than headlines suggest. Libyans have done surprisingly well, after 42 years of dictatorship. They have gotten their oil flowing at nearly the same level as before the revolution, generating much-needed money. And now the ballot box victory of the political bloc led by Mahmoud Jibril — a technocratic reformer — proves that Libya has a shot at a bright future. Perhaps even brighter than Egypt’s, Tunisia’s, or Iraq’s.