Libya and Washington’s Iraq Syndrome

Like any American who was in Iraq in 2003, I was anxious about Libya’s future when Parliament passed a law barring former Qaddafi officials from office for ten years. This law, called the “purge” or “isolation” law, seemed a recipe for division and disaster, much as the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and purges of Baath party officials had been in the early days of our invasion of Iraq. I wondered if indignant officials might resist violently, or sabotage their offices. The fact that the law was passed while militias surrounded Parliament didn’t inspire confidence, either.

I was surprised that my Libyan friends all supported the law, even friends who are resolute pessimists about Libya and life in general. One young woman told me that even though her father, a former Libyan ambassador, would be hurt by the law, he and the rest of the family were in favor. “It’s necessary for the good of the country.” I was reminded of something the Benghazi activist Iman Bughaighis told me back in April 2011, that the real struggle for Libyans would be not getting rid of Qaddafi, but getting rid of the little Qaddafi inside of every Libyan.

The implementation of the law is complicated, with the judiciary initially exempt from the purge, as they must evaluate the officials in question. Later, the judiciary will review itself. Some Libyans told me they expected many legal challenges to the law. Yet on May 28th, the head of Parliament, Mohamed al-Magarief, resigned as requested. Magarief was actually known for nearly all of his career as a dissident, in exile from 1980 to 2011—31 years. He was a key member of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which in 1984 tried to assassinate Qaddafi. But because he’d served as a diplomat to India in the 1970s, he fell under the law. It seems Parliament will have to elect a new head. So far, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan remains in office, although he served under Magarief as a diplomat in India.

It’s hard to imagine something like this happening peacefully in Iraq, even today, much less in 2003. Which underlines my message here, that Libya is not Iraq. Although Libya was cobbled together from three ancient Roman provinces in 1952, although Libya has a minority group (the Amazigh) that practices a slightly different form of Islam, Libya is a very different place.

We Americans have been so traumatized by Iraq that it’s hard for us to see that not every newly free country decides to commit suicide, which is more or less what Iraq did. Libyans seem to want to live and prosper, not take revenge on each other. That’s not to say that the country is Switzerland. Every Libyan I know is worried about the security situation and specifically the rise of extremist groups in ungoverned areas like the south. (When I visited Sebha and Obari in November 2011, the area had only been free for a month, and it was clearly deeply impoverished and isolated. Now I hear that there are three al-Qaeda training camps around Sebha.)

Libya is ultimately Libyans’ responsibility, not ours. The Libyans won their freedom without American troops. They will keep it—or not—without American troops. But the lesson for us from Libya is that the lesson of Iraq does not fit every case. In fact, the lesson of both liberations is that local knowledge matters deeply—and each country is unique.

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