The looming demise of Muammar Qadhafi in Libya is welcome news, particularly at a time when good news is in short supply. But even if Qadhafi indeed is fully deposed as the dictatorial leader of Libya, some harsh realities remain.
The first is that the United States cannot swoop in and fix international crises, simply because we have long had a strong military. Americans got a little cocky after the invasion of Grenada and the first Gulf War. Both ended relatively quickly, and served to support a wrong idea that once the United States got involved, the deed was all but done. If the memories of Vietnam have faded, surely the lessons from Iraq are fresh and still developing. It’s tempting to step in when foreign insurgents seek to topple a dictator, but it is a mistake to believe such involvement will not be costly, in terms of cash and lives. Nor should we expect the conflict to end quickly, particularly when the target is someone who would rather die than surrender. The Libyan conflict has taken longer than many had hoped, and members of Congress were right to demand more accountability from the Obama administration on the mission. But by modern standards, the task of ousting Qadhafi—which appears near done—has been astonishingly quick. [See political cartoons on uprisings across the Middle East.]
The second reality is that despite the euphoria that comes with felling a hated dictator, success means only that the hard work is to come. This has been abundantly clear in Iraq, where violence and political upheaval continue despite the fact the Saddam Hussein is dead. However awful a dictator may be, his presence usually brings a predictability and stability to the country. It may be a terrible predictability, a brutal stability, but it is easier to navigate—especially for the international community—than an untested, often volatile system that takes the place of the autocrat. Dictatorial regimes are cruel, but democracy is hard. And more than the military assistance NATO gave Libyan rebels who now are in reach of taking over control of the country, Libya will need international help in fostering a better nation. The actual conflict took six months, but the democracy-building process will be much longer, and Americans need to be prepared for it.