Washington DC, Asharq Al-Awsat—The recent violence in Libya’s capital has underscored just how fragile the North African country remains in the wake of the NATO-backed toppling of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. As the interim government in Tripoli struggles to reign in the power of militias and rebuffs the drive for secession in the eastern half of the country, it is becoming increasingly unpopular among ordinary Libyans, impatient with its failure to get a grip on either problem and restore a measure of stability to public life.
Elsewhere, scholars and policymakers continue to debate the merits of NATO’s bombing campaign, and whether or not, given the ensuing chaos, Western military intervention in another Arab country so soon after Iraq was justified, and whether it could have been done more successfully.
Shortly before the massacre in Tripoli on Friday, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Dr. Christopher S. Chivvis of the RAND Corporation, one of the most influential American think-tanks, the author of a forthcoming book on the NATO intervention in Libya and its aftermath, Toppling Qaddafi: Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention, which will be published in December by Cambridge University Press.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Could you please comment on recent kidnapping of Libya’s Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan? Why did it happen? What are its implications?
Dr. Christopher S. Chivvis: Zeidan’s kidnapping is a sign of the seriousness of the crisis that Libya is now facing. It appears to be a consequence of the US capture of terrorist Abu Anas al Libi. I know that some Libyans see the US operation as an infringement on their sovereignty, but the fact is that there is no sovereignty in Libya right now. Until the country’s armed groups agree to turn their weapons over to a central government and participate peacefully in the national political process, Libya will not be sovereign and will be subject to further such incidents.
Q: Why didn’t the militias, which played an important role in toppling Gaddafi, disband? Are they linked to distinct factions and ideologies?
There are many different armed groups in Libya. The government’s failure to disarm and demobilize the militias after the war was a result of its inherent weakness as an unelected body, combined with its unwillingness to accept foreign help. My view is that most, although not all, militias would prefer to disarm and join the political process, but they are afraid to be the first to do so. There are clearly a range of different ideologies among these armed groups, some more moderate, some more fundamentalist in their views. A small number are linked to jihadists, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but we should hope that these small numbers will not get the upper hand.
Q: After their bloody, but successful, struggle to get rid of former dictator Gaddafi, why do the Libyans seem incapable of ruling themselves?
It is not the Libyans’ fault, per se. The problem is structural—a failure to establish security in the early period following the collapse of the war. Without security it is impossible to move forward on other necessary post-conflict fronts, including establishing a legitimate and just political order.
Q: What can the US, Europe and the UN do to help Libya?
There are many things they can do. To begin with, they can and are helping Libya build reliable security forces that can establish law and order. This will take time, however, and needs to be done with the interests of all Libyans in mind. Libya’s foreign partners should also help Libya establish a broad and inclusive national reconciliation and disarmament process. There are many ways in which the European Union or the United Nations could help Libya regain its sovereignty and get back on track toward peace and stability through such a process.
Q: Is the problem because of NATO mistakes when they helped the opposition to topple Qaddafi? What could they have done to avoid the current situation?
My view is that there should have been the deployment of post-conflict peacekeeping troops. That deployment should have been small. The last thing that Libya needed then or now is an Iraq-type occupation. This would have been the wrong idea. Nevertheless, a small international force could have done much to avert the current crisis. Unfortunately, the Libyan government was reluctant to accept such a force and the international actors were unwilling to provide it.
Q: What is your opinion about the US operation that captured Al Qaeda leader Abu Anas Al-Liby? Wasn’t that an infringement of Libya’s sovereignty? Doesn’t it complicate US relations with Libya and hinder US ability to help?
A: Libya is not a sovereign country yet. It is misleading to think that it is. Sovereignty is something that is built, not given. Armed groups that act independently of the Libyan political process continue to deprive Libya of its sovereignty. I think the people of Libya understand this. There is no question that the capture of Al-Liby will complicate relations between the United States and Libya. There is also no question that the United States would do it again if it needed to. Until Libya becomes sovereign, there is no alternative.
Q: The illegal immigration—and death—of Arabs and Africans, as they travelled from Libya towards Europe, could increase with more lawlessness in Libya. Isn’t it in the West’s interest to help Libya, if not for no otheronly for that reason?
The tragedies that we have seen in recent weeks in the Mediterranean clearly signal how important Libya is to the European Union (EU). The EU needs to do work hard to improve the situation in Libya. The EU can provide technical assisstance, facilitate a national reconciliation process on the model of Northern Ireland and other areas. It can also help train Libyan police and judicial experts. There are many ways that the EU and others could help, but the security situation needs to improve first. The lack of security in Libya right now makes it very hard for outsiders to offer the assistance that they can.
Q: What are the premises of your coming book on Libya? What are its conclusions?
My argument in Toppling Qaddafi is that the NATO military intervention was successful because it helped Libyans gain their freedom from Qaddafi and saved many civilian lives. I argue, however, that NATO and other international actors ought to have done more after the war to help Libya in its post-conflict period.
Q: Why have you become interested in Libya? Have you visited Libya? What are your general impressions about the Libyans? Do you think they are capable of democracy?
For our work at RAND we have conducted research in Libya. It is unfortunately difficult to go as often as we would like because of the security risks and cost. The Libyans who I’ve met are very kind and welcoming to Americans. There is no question that they can have a just and democratic political order, provided they lay down their arms and discuss their country’s future in good faith and with open minds. If they do not, however, there is a real risk that the country could collapse again into civil war.
Q: Finally, what do you think are the likely scenarios for the future of Libya?
There are many possible scenarios for the future of Libya. If Libya collapses again into civil war, it could easily resemble Syria, Somalia or Yemen. A return to civil war might eventually result in another autocratic ruler coming to power. I do not think that it will be divided, although I think that the future Libyan state should be highly decentralized. My hope, however, is that Libya will become a unified, moderate Islamic state that cooperates with its neighbors and Europe. Any other solution seems to me to be a recipe for perpetual conflict.