How to Avoid Bush’s Iraq Mistakes in Libya

The illegal American invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation was so epochal a catastrophe that it spawned a negative phrase in Arabic, “to Iraqize” or `arqana. Tonight I heard an Alarabiya anchor ask a spokesman for the new government in Libya whether there as a danger of the country being “Iraqized.” He was taken aback and asked her what she meant. Apparently she meant chaos, civil war, no services, etc. (Those Neoconservatives who trumpet their Iraq misadventure as a predecessor to the Arab Spring should take a lesson; no one cites Iraq among the youth movements except as an example of what must be avoided). The Libyan intervention was legal in international law, authorized by the UN Security Council, and so can hope to have a better outcome. So how can Libyans and the world avoid the Iraqization of Libya?

1. No Western infantry or armored units should be stationed in the country. Their presence would risk inflaming the passions of the Muslim fundamentalists and of the remaining part of the population that is soft on Qaddafi. The presence of Western troops in Muslim lands creates terrorism, which then produces calls in the West for more Western troops, which creates more terrorism. It is the dialectic of a horror movie. The hawks who believe people can be bludgeoned into acquiescence have been proven wrong over and over again, in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. If large numbers of Western troops could always prevail, the Algerian Revolution of 1962 could never have succeeded.

The Qaddafi government collapsed in the east of the country in February, and Benghazi, al-Bayda, Dirna and Tobruk have been tolerably stable. There is no reason to believe that the west of the country need be less so once the fighting subsides. Security is not perfect, but let the Libyans supply it. Already in Tripoli, neighborhood watch groups have been formed to supply local security, and aside from the hated Bab al-Aziziya compound, there has been little looting.

2. As much as possible of the current bureaucracy, police and army should be retained. Only those with innocent blood on their hands or who were captured rather than surrendering or switching sides should be fired. The EU is doing the right thing in trying to ensure the bureaucrats get paid their salaries in the aftermath of the fall of Tripoli. The descent of Iraq into looting under Rumsfeld in spring of 2003 marked the beginning of a long gap in security. In Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi fired tens of thousands of capable Sunni Arabs who had been mid-level Baath Party members, thereby depriving the country of the people who knew best how to accomplish things and deliver government services, and driving them into violent opposition instead.

3. Some Libyans are complaining about the prospect of retaining the same police as in the old regime, and want local security committees instead. A compromise would be to establish a strong civilian oversight over police.

4. Avoid being vindictive toward former Qaddafi supporters, and avoid purging all but the top officials from the body politic. Egypt perhaps hasn’t gone quite far enough in removing Mubarak cronies, which provoked the July demonstrations. And it is important to prosecute secret police and others with blood on their hands. But moderation and wisdom should be used, in hopes of knitting the body politic back together. Note that once the Anglican Church in the United States renounced allegiance to the British king, it was given full rights in the new American republic, even though Anglicans in general had opposed the revolution.

5. Avoid a rush to privatize everything. Oil countries anyway inevitably have large public sectors. Impediments to entrepreneurship should be removed, but well-run state enterprises can have their place in a modern economy, as some of the Asian nations have demonstrated. Rajiv Chandrasekaran demonstrated in his Imperial Life in the Emerald City how the US fetish for privatization destroyed state factories that could otherwise have been revived and that could have supplied jobs.

6. Consult with Norway about how it is possible for an oil state to remain a democracy. The petroleum income can make the state more powerful than civil society, and there is [pdf] a statistical correlation between have a state that depends heavily on a single primary commodity and a tendency to despotism (as well as a tendency toward violence, since such commodities can be smuggled and cartels emerge to fight over smuggling rights). These problems of dependence on a high-priced primary commodity can be seen in Iraq, where the prime minister has increasingly become a soft strong man, in part because of government petroleum revenues.

7. Use the Alaska dividend system to share the oil wealth with Libya’s 6.5 million people. This model was often discussed with regard to Iraq but was never implemented.

8. Democratization and economic growth cannot be attained through oil exports alone. Having a pricey primary commodity like petroleum causes a country’s currency to harden. A harder currency means that manufactures, handicrafts, and agricultural produce from that country artificially cost more to countries with softer currencies. This effect is called the “Dutch disease” because the Netherlands developed natural gas in the late 1960s and found it actually hurt some parts of their economy. The cure is to diversify the economy. The most clever way to do so is to use the petroleum receipts to promote other industries and services. Libya has a high literacy rate and could potentially attract investors to put its population to work in other sectors.

9. Recognize Berber as a national language. The TNC has stress that the new Libya will be pluralist and multicultural, and the new constitution does not assert that Libya is an Arab state, as the intrepid Brian Whitaker has pointed out. There is no reason for which the important Berber minority should not be given its due. It is obviously important for national unity there be a strong Arabic component in the schools.

10. Once it gets on its feet socially and economically, Libya should go forward with bruited plans to get into solar and wind energy big time. Petroleum will always have value in petrochemicals, but burning it is bad for the earth because extra carbon in the atmosphere causes global warming, which will hit Libya especially hard. It is a delicious irony that the petroleum revenues could make it possible to ease the transition to solar power. Libya’s big desert is ideal for photovoltaic panels. Transitioning away from petroleum exports as the major industry would help economic diversification and increase the likelihood of a retention of democracy, as well as likely contributing to social peace. Not to mention that you don’t want it hotter in Libya in the summer than it already is.

Posted in Iraq,Libya | 39 Responses | Print |

39 Responses

  1. What are you on Cole? “The Libyan intervention was legal in international law, authorized by the UN Security Council,” This is a complete lie.

    What was authorized was the protection of civilians, not carte blanche to take sides in a civil war, to kill the other side’s civilians, to attack civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, TV stations, etc. as NATO have done.

    According to your rule book, then every western journalist in Libya is a legitimate target, as are any medical faciities belonging to NATO.

    • I said that the intervention was authorized, which it was.

      Your position ignores what happened next. Gaddafi was instructed by the UNSC to stop attacking his people. He ratcheted up the attacks and assaulted Misrata, Zawiya, etc., committing crimes against humanity. Given this war on the Libyan people, the job of protecting them inevitably changed.

      That is, you are ignoring the dialectical character of history.

      The UNSC is the only court that could have decreed that the intervention took a wrong turn, and it never did. Your opinion is all very nice, but it is just your opinion.

  2. was just on democracy now and noted a link which suggested you didn’t think the NATO war on Libya was a bad thing. couldn’t believe it til i came here.
    what is shocking is the total failure of any antiwar movement in the US since the “Nobel Peace Prize” winner took power. it is as if Democrat wars don’t stink!
    have lost all faith with the American “progressive” left.
    what impostors.

  3. The “Norway” solution to natural resources is a tried, tested and true mechanism. The combination of keeping natural resources in public hands with democratic institutions is remarkably successful and avoids “the Resource Curse” of dictatorships and civil war.

    For a successful developing world implementation have a look at Botswana – compare what it is like to neighbouring countries, have a look at where it started, and have a look at what it did differently.

    c.f., link to

  4. The Iraq occupation under Rumsfeld was the worst of all possible worlds. They dissolved the Iraqi state, while also keeping foreign troops all over the place, while also refusing for a long time to take responsibility for providing security – while ALSO attracting thousands of foreign terrorists into the country who decided to go on a massive murder spree in order to provoke a civil war just to screw with us. What a disaster: produce a security crisis, refuse to provide security, and don’t let anyone else do so, either.

    Re: solar farms in Libya – I’ve long wondered if the huge solar potential in the Sarhara could be used to support energy-intensive manufacturing industries for the huge European market just across the Med.

      • The Europeans would be fools to become dependent on a single supplier as they are with Russian Natural Gas.

        The Europeans have a 350 mile undersea HDVC link from Norway to the Netherlands, which is a similar distance as Tripoli-Messina with possibility of a drop off in Malta.

        If desertec becomes a reality then they should have units in Algeria as well as Morocco, Tunisia (which are even closer) and Libya. Maybe they could co-site the Libyan generators with the Green Circles link to

      • The Europeans would be fools to become dependent on a single supplier as they are with Russian Natural Gas.

        There’s a 350 mile undersea HDVC link from Norway to the Netherlands, which is a similar distance as Tripoli-Messina with possibility of a drop off in Malta.

        If desertec becomes a reality then they should have units in Algeria as well as Morocco, Tunisia (which are even closer) and Libya. Maybe they could co-site the Libyan generators with the Green Circles link to

  5. I salute you Juan, excellent! Succinct, sound, prudent and comprehensive. Which makes me wonder. You are now being heard in a lot of realms, that formerly didn’t listen to such advice. I wonder if the establishment is finally considering giving up its “we few powers control the world, and they have to do our bidding”? Perhaps giving it up to some degree, but not totally voluntarily, more because the rest of the world is collectively beginning to say, “enough of that nonsense already, give it up”. Whatever, it is joyful to see that more and more of the world is changing for the better. Now to wait for the delicious moment when this happens in Syria. Whoa is Israel in for deep trouble. Once it’s “we are the only democracy in the ME” become extinct, it is going to be very difficult for them to hide their repeated absurdities from world opprobrium.

  6. By far the worst idea you have here is number 7 “. Use the Alaska dividend system to share the oil wealth with Libya’s 6.5 million people. This model was often discussed with regard to Iraq but was never implemented.”

    You can either use the wealth by a few on top, do as you suggest to give each Libyan a portion of the wealth, or shared by the society in an open and transparent collective.

    The history of past decades has been that wealth has been controlled by a few on the top with devastating consequences. The other extreme of dividing the wealth equally among the population may even be worst. It would be a society with very little infrastructure with money going to the cheap importers of goods. Ironically, when you do this, your economic numbers look good but the end result is devastating to the society. Iraq failure for most part was probably trying to implement this privatized model. Naomi Klein did a good job capturing this: link to

    The only alternative is to share the wealth under and open and transparent central government that is accountable to its people.

    • How do you expect the “Alaskan Model” to be implemented in Libya, when the US Federal Government does not even implement it in the US? In Oklahoma oil was stolen under the auspices of the Federal Government Dept of the Interior, and now the tax payers are the ones who have to recompense the victims.

      • Sorry forgot to add: the oil companies screwed up with Alaska and they will never let it happen again.

  7. On the first week after the overthrow of Saddam, and after the dismantling of the army and the police, looting in Iraq was rampant. Donald Rumsfeld said at the time, “We are not here to police the country.” After that statement I knew all was lost.

    The best way to avoid the Bush mistakes made in Iraq is to keep that entire cold-blooded and criminal administration as far away from decision making as possible. Fortunately, that mistake has not been repeated in Libya.

  8. I’m as anti-war as the next guy, but progressives who loudly decry military intervention were simply not paying any attention – AT ALL – to the crimes against humanity taking place. I have not yet heard one of them offer any alternative, much less a reasonable one. Unfortunately, they seem to be among the large segment of the populace who don’t get it that Arabs are not only people – but in cases like this, extraordinarily beautiful people. Surely, they’d be the first to say “Never Again” to Nazi-like genocide, yet when it does happen, they turn their faces from the scene.

    Ditto about anyone who refers to it as a “civil war.” TOTALLY not paying attention.

  9. All citizens with a degree in business or economics from the University of Chicago should be deported.

  10. On Democracy Now was Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. She has a totally different take on what and who is in control in Libya and what it to be expected. It is again all about oil. Details have emerged that U.S. and NATO forces played a key role in the Libyan rebel push into Tripoli, carrying out 17 Predator drone strikes and 38 air strikes since August 10. That is only in the last ten day period! Overall, the U.S. has carried out 1,210 air strikes and 101 Predator drone strikes in Libya since April 1. NATO says it will keep up pressure on Gaddafi and that its “mission is not over yet”. Lots of damage has been inflicted on Libya complements of the U.S. and Nato! When or if reconstruction takes place same people who did the major damage will also cash in. I am sorry Dr.Cole but past history of the major players does not leave me very optimistic.

    • Tripoli did not fall to the revolutionary armies marching in from Zawiya and other places, to which NATO did supply close air support. It fell to a popular uprising in Tajoua, Suq al-Juma, etc. Read my Sunday posting.

      Ipso facto NATO wasn’t key to the fall of Tripoli, except insofar as it gave hear to people who already wanted to rise up. And giving heart was part of its great success.

      The revolutionaries are just Libyan youth all around the country. They are a cross section. I don’t know what Libyan youth ever did to you that you are so down on them.

      • I do not see any mention of the Libyan youth in my message
        Dr.Cole! I was very clear in my reference to the major players, I named them!

    • Bennis is reflexively anti-interventionist. That lens colors all of her analyses.

  11. Dear Professor Cole

    Chatham House have published a paper on Policy Options in Libya.

    link to

    One of the options they propose is buying back the weapons that have been distributed, stolen and otherwise misapropriated.

    No chance! The gunrunners will pay better, if anyone is daft enough to part with his personal weapon.

    The Daily Telegraph reports on Libyan weapons flooding into Gaza.

    link to

    Ho Hum. The law of unexpected consequences strikes again!

  12. Better yet, get out now before we can do more damage.

    Since communism collapsed in Europe, is NATO necessary?

    Why did we need to take in the Warsaw pact nations?

    With the expansion, NATO needed to justify its existance.

    THere was Bosnia and Kosova, then lying our way into Iraq. Now tilting a revolution against an anti-American dictator.

    What next?

    • What do you mean “get out?” We’re not in.

      You ask why NATO Is necessary. When was the last time two European countries went to war against each other? Rather remarkable run they’ve had, taking the long view of history.

      BTW. NATO had no involvement in Iraq.

  13. Removeing Saddam,and establishing a more democratic Iraq is of a MUCH higher Difficulty Level than whacking tiny Libya’s tinpot despot.Iraq is at the epicenter of the ME’s ethnic/religious faultlines, ;Libya doesn’t suffer comparable divisiveness.
    Pres.GW Bush did the Heavy Lifting of the Arab Spring.
    If Obama wants to Come Up to Big Leagues,let him bury Assad.

    • Removeing Saddam,and establishing a more democratic Iraq is of a MUCH higher Difficulty Level than whacking tiny Libya’s tinpot despot.

      Indeed: it’s the difference between $1.5 trillion and $1.1 billion. Between 4300 dead troops and 0. Between perhaps a couple hundred dead civilians and perhaps a quarter million.

      Christian just war doctrine teaches us that the costs of a war must be proportionate to the benefits that can be realistically expected. Not that you’re necessarily a Christian, but that traditional way of appraising wars has a long pedigree in western society.

      (Although I was a betting man, I’d wager that you are both a Christian and a big supporter of western civilization.)

      • bush-the_liberator:

        My, my! Aren’t conservative memories short! As Wolfowitz would point out: “We didn’t remove Saddam Hussein to impose democracy”. Remember those things Bush called WMD, the things that didn’t exist?

        Iraq was not “the epicenter of the ME’s religious faultlines” until our invasion turned the country into the cause célèbre for al-Qaeda types.

    • Why didn’t the Arab Spring happen in 2004 then? Why didn’t Bush put sanctions on Mubarak instead of continuing to deliver his billion per year in aid? We did nothing to contribute to the Arab Spring except prop up hated dictators beyond the people’s ability to bear, and turn Iraq into a hellhole, and snuggle up ever closer to Israel – which you might notice now has a street uprising going on against Netanyahu, whose party practically cohabits Washington D.C. How can you not notice that most of the uprisings have been against US allies?

  14. actually .. the first place to put your solar panels is not in the desert but on the roofs of houses, right where the electricity is needed. Appart from that: it is too late to think the world will avoid some serious global warming. Better prepare for it, eg. by planting more trees to at least have some shade.

  15. The presence of Western troops in Muslim lands creates terrorism. That’s what happened in 1990-1991 in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. That intervention was legal under international law. Also, just killing from the sky may create terrorists also. I think what the West just did in Libya was fine. But there have been UN-approved bombing campaigns that were wrong.

  16. “2 … The presence of Western troops in Muslim lands creates terrorism” – there haven’t been any Western troops in Indonesia (1945), Pakistan (1947), Morocco (1956), Turkey (1923), since they became independent (dates indicated). Yet each of them have had acts of Islamic terrorism within the last decade. This is an “excuse” given by Islamic extremists, it should be given no credence by repeating it.

    “6 Consult with Norway about how it is possible for an oil state to remain a democracy.” – the operative word here is “remain”. Libya is not and never has been a democracy, whereas Norway’s democracy has developed organically since it broke away from Sweden in 1814. Norway is NOT an “oil state”, it already had a fairly good & diverse economy when it found its oil/gas in the 1960’s, and it remains so today. Some of its other industries are timber, hydro, fishing (2nd largest exporter), weapons (6th largest exporter) shipping (6th largest), aluminium (10th largest), high grade specialty steels and pure silicon for the semiconductor industry. Norway puts much of its oil revenues into sovereign wealth funds, Libya has such a fund called the Gaddafi Fund, which has made some bad investments. What Libya should do is to change the fund name and get some honest, competent funds managers – try Singapore.

    “7 Use Alaska dividend system & 8 diversify the economy”, surely these are contradictory. The “Alaskan dividend” system seems to be a variant of the “Saudi Free Money” system – they don’t work, they do harm, they produce layabouts and terrorists of Islamic & Tea-Party kind. The first thing a state should do for its able bodied & minded people is to provide them with the dignity of productive employment and business opportunities, not state handouts.

    Libya should use Singapore as an economic model for its development. The only resources Singapore has is people and location, Libya has a similar number of people and its location isn’t too bad, the oil should be seen as a bonus. Since independence in 1965 SNG has grown on average by about 9% per annum, it’s per capita GDP(PPP) is now $62K (USA is $47K), its income distribution ratios are similar to USA and it has the worlds 5th largest sovereign wealth fund, second only to China for non commodity based economies. There’s plenty to criticize about Singapore on the HR & democracy fronts, but having lived in Doha and Singapore I know which is better.

    “9. Recognize Berber as a national language.” As well the Berber language, I hope they also recognize the rights of minorities such as the Ibadhi’s whose jurisprudence differs from the Sunni majority. I’ve see a version of the constitution document referenced by Brian W that has a different Article 1, no mention of sharia; so I suspect there are different versions for different audiences – now I can’t find the sans-sharia version.

  17. Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute had an interesting piece in The Guardian today:

    “[M]ost cynics overlook Libya’s advantages. Foremost is the absence of a predatory military establishment overseeing the transition, as in Egypt. The regular army has dissolved and the regime’s special brigades are far smaller than Iraq’s foolishly disbanded army of 2003.

    Second, the TNC mercifully lacks a Hamid Karzai – a charismatic statesman whose ambition can all too easily congeal into venal oligarchy. Article 29 of the interim constitution even forbids TNC members from assuming ministerial or legislative office – a remarkable abdication of ambition.

    Third, the location of oil in the interior limits the ability of either east or west to coerce the central government.

    Finally, the suggestion that Islamist militias amount to a north African Taliban is absurd.”

    • If they can pull off a Portugal-style transition to democracy, I would be most impressed.

      Portugal did. No reason Libya couldn’t.

      • In 1974 Portugal was already in NATO and it had the EU beckoning, same for Spain in ’75. Libya can only look forward to continued membership of the UN, Arab League and the African Union.

        I don’t think there’s much value in drawing parallels between what’s happening in the Arab world today to what happened in Europe in the 1970-90’s – tempting as it is to compare Carnations & Jasmine.

    • I’m not so sure that an “overbearing military” is necessarily a bad thing. Both Turkey & Indonesia have a powerful military thatwere “overbearing”, however the transfer power from the military to democratically elected civilian authorities is a happening in both countries. They’re both stable countries with increasing regional influence and they both have growing economies.

      Indonesia elected a moderate Islamic scholar as President, then they elected a secular female, then they elected a pragmatic former general, twice. Be interesting to see who they elect next. Indonesia has the world largest Muslim population – 190+ million.

  18. I must say I am pessimistic about thedirection of a future the Libyan state.
    Major figures in the National Transitional Council were ones implicated in the neoliberal reforms, when you add to that the NATO countries track record of economic policies in the developing world and the fact that Libya already seems to have a class of neoliberal kleptocrats it doesn’t look good.
    It seems that the things witch would be able to pressure the NTC into pursuing policy’s which will benefit the majority of Libyans; trade unions or an organised mass movement (like the Norwegian social democratic party) don’t exits in surfficient strength (I had heard of trade union forming in Benghazi but nothing since) to counter the prevailing winds of neoliberalism.
    I hope I’m wrong.

  19. Regarding the police and army, the thing to do is to set up widely-trusted tribunals to hear cases of police abuses, and to remove the police *where they have a record of abuse*, while leaving those who have a record of protecting people in place.

    “Clean house”, in other words. It may be that the police in entire towns will be sacked, but not in the entire country.

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