Libya’s Long Road

On September 11, 2012 the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by several dozen assailants armed with sophisticated weapons. The attack killed the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and several other diplomatic staff. On the surface the attack seems to be related to the release of an obscure online film, produced in the U.S. by clumsy critics of Islam. Related protests have occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. While the Libya attack may or may not be the start of a new season of heightened tensions between the United States and the Arab world, the attack does put a spotlight on state weakness in Libya.

Secretary of State Clinton acknowledged the confusion that many feel about the attack:

Today, many Americans are asking – indeed, I asked myself – how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.

But we must be clear-eyed, even in our grief. This was an attack by a small and savage group – not the people or Government of Libya. Everywhere [Ambassador Chris Stevens] and his team went in Libya, in a country scarred by war and tyranny, they were hailed as friends and partners. And when the attack came yesterday, Libyans stood and fought to defend our post. Some were wounded. Libyans carried Chris’ body to the hospital, and they helped rescue and lead other Americans to safety. And last night, when I spoke with the President of Libya, he strongly condemned the violence and pledged every effort to protect our people and pursue those responsible.

In short, how could a grateful Libya allow this attack to occur?

For those who follow Libya closely, such as Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the attack was shocking but not surprising. For more than a generation (1969-2011), Libya was governed through the highly personalistic rule of the Muammar Gaddafi. The eccentric and ruthless dictator established little in the way of institutions that would survive him; he ruled largely through caprice and ever-changing fiats. As Libyans struggle to establish democracy, they face a long, tough slog to establish formal institutions of governance guided by the rule of law and rational administration. It is hardly surprising that Libya is somewhat chaotic 11 months after Gaddafi’s death. Not least, tens of thousands of armed fighters are still operating in irregular militias throughout Libya. Other transitioning democracies – including those with a more helpful past – also face long roads to establish social and political order rooted in law and freedom. The United States and other democracies must be patient with the Libyans, even as we seek to bring the Benghazi attackers to justice. Lasting democracy cannot be established in one or two years. Anyone who says otherwise is simply wrong.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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