One of the most haunting books to emerge from the wreckage of the Great War was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a scorching antidote to the idea of war as romantic pastime. With the final disintegration of the Gaddafi regime in Tripoli, a dictatorship that lasted more than ten times as long as the First World War, one is tempted to hope that all will soon be quiet on the North African front.
Yet it would be unwise to expect an entirely smooth and peaceful transition in Libya after 42 years of this most odious of regimes. There will be bumps, if not hills and mountains, along the way. To venture a few predictions, there will be reprisals, bloodletting and assassinations. Rival tribes and politicians will jockey for power. There will be tensions between east and west, as there have been for centuries. Corruption will not disappear with the Mad Dog and his luxury-loving sons.
After the destruction of the past six months, it will take time — Shukri Ghanem, the former oil minister, suggests 18 months — for Libya to recover its pre-war level of oil production of 1.6 million barrels a day. The challenge of restructuring a largely state-owned economy will be formidable. Expectations will be high, frequently unrealistic, and must be carefully managed through effective communications. For all the transition and stabilisation planning in the world — and much excellent work has been done in Benghazi — a period of uncertainty is inevitable. There will be times when it looks distinctly ugly. It cannot be otherwise.
None of this should surprise us, nor should it detract from Nato’s and the Libyan rebels’ extraordinary success in this campaign against Gaddafi. Detractors argued from the outset, with ever greater volume and desperation, that the Nato campaign was “running into the sand”. Lazy commentators who should have known better talked of “stalemate”. I recall one BBC producer complaining to me several months ago that Gaddafi’s unexpected resilience had spoiled the timing of one of his television programmes, as though this was a war that had to conform to media deadlines.
Most recently, the assassination of the rebels’ military leader, General Abdul Fatah Younis, was treated as though suddenly the entire campaign had been a mistake and the National Transitional Council was a useless rabble of amateurs and Islamists. Then there was the tired old bogeyman of al-Qaeda lurking in the wings. In Britain, at least, it hasn’t been difficult to detect that old malaise of willing failure from success. There will be plenty more of that in the weeks and months to come.
Here’s another prediction. Libyans will make a decent if messy fist of muddling through after Gaddafi and they will be able to manage without Western armies or peacekeepers. They will be best served by assistance from organisations like the UN and World Bank. After Gaddafi’s doling out of all those petrodollars to African leaders, the African Union is discredited. Thus amid the predictable reaction to Gaddafi’s fall, came the comment from Kenya’s assistant foreign minister Richard Onyonka that the Colonel will be remembered for the “very positive things” he achieved in office. That’s not how Libyans will remember him.
It is all very well saying that we must learn from Iraq and Afghanistan in Libya, but the real lesson from those two wars is not that there should be greater or lesser engagement with the tribes or no demobilisation of the army or a more realistic timetable for elections or a host of other items on a policymaker’s checklist. It is quite simply that the West is lousy at boots-on-the-ground intervention. It is far more impressive as a trading force. The return of international business will play a more significant role than any number of Western experts or foreign soldiers in rebuilding a country that has the potential to be a North African Dubai (pessimists prefer a Somalia in waiting).
It is too much to hope for, of course, but if things can’t be entirely quiet on the North African front just yet, a spot of silence from all the doomsayers and gloom-mongers would be extremely welcome.