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Stanford political scientist James Fearon is available for interviews on the future of Libya. His research focuses on political violence, ethnic conflict and the impact of democracy on foreign policy.

August 22, 2011

Media advisory: Libya expert available to discuss troubled country's future

"The usual pattern at this point would be for the rebel coalition, now that the prize that helped unify their efforts has been won, to divide and start fighting for control of It," says political scientist James Fearon.

By Cynthia Haven

James Fearon
L.A. Cicero/Stanford News File Photo

Muammar Gaddafi's days appear to be over after a 42-year dictatorship. 

"There remains a degree of uncertainty and there are still regime elements who pose a threat," said President Obama earlier today. "But this much is clear: the Gaddafi regime is coming to an end and the future of Libya is in the hands of its people."

As events continue to unfold in Tripoli, the world is asking exactly what to expect next in Libya.

The Stanford News Service posed the question to James Fearon, a professor of political science whose research focuses on political violence, ethnic conflict and the impact of democracy on foreign policy.

Who's the new boss?  Which way might this roll?

The Transitional National Council.  Hopefully they have already agreed on a process for holding initial elections, writing and approving a new constitution, and a transitional authority that would attend to maintaining order.  

That's a lot to hope for, though. The usual pattern at this point would be for the rebel coalition, now that the prize that helped unify their efforts has been won, to divide and start fighting for control of it.  It appears that the most likely lines of division would be regional and tribal. 

Skillful diplomacy by third parties might be able to help design electoral rules and legislative institutions that could lessen the temptation to fight by giving even relatively small tribes some prospect of a share of political power through the play of coalition politics in a legislature. 

Historical experience with trying to set up such systems is not very reassuring, however.  At the least, it's hard to do.

In Libya, President Obama favored the United States taking a more low-key approach than we took in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Has that strategy paid off?

Certainly it's more "low key" than Iraq.  The Libya intervention was via NATO, did not involve ground troops, had a blessing from the U.N. Security Council – and, initially, support from some Arab League leaders.  The Libya [operation] and the first phase of the Afghanistan operations are somewhat more comparable.  In both cases – in contrast to Iraq – we intervened with a lot of airpower in support of rebel forces already fighting against the government, and had considerable international support.

Yes, the strategy paid off relative to the Iraq debacle, but that's a low bar.

The intervention in Libya has run up a nearly $1 billion price tag for the United States since March.  Was it worth it?  What does this suggest for the future of these kinds of interventions?

One billion dollars is about one seventh of 1 percent of the current U.S. defense budget.  If there is a transition to a functioning government with some democratic aspects – so that Libya appears to be joining and reinforcing a wave of not-too-terrible transitions away from corrupt, stagnant authoritarian rule in North Africa and the Middle East – then there is a good case that it was well worth it.  For U.S. foreign policy that would be a great return on investment compared to many other things we buy with our massive defense spending.

The question is not so much about the money spent so far, as what's going to happen next.  If the transition in Libya produces anarchy and a terrible civil war that makes for thousands of deaths, refugees and openings – and training – for jihadists, then the intervention will look less worthwhile, and of course there will be pressure to spend more to keep this from happening. 

Regarding the future of such interventions, this will mainly depend on what happens next.  I get the impression, though, that some of the non-Western states that initially supported intervention ended up unhappy with the display of NATO's power and what they may see as actions that exceeded the mandate – that is, NATO working for regime change – and that they will be more reluctant in the future to authorize similar ventures.

We remember TV images of Afghans cheering the retreat of the Russians, but the Taliban that followed was not "democracy."  Similarly, the reign of the Shah in Iran yielded to the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini.  What should we expect? 

The road ahead is definitely not clear.  Compared to Tunisia and Egypt, Libya post-Gaddafi looks like a vacuum in terms of civil society and competent state institutions that could help to govern and organize a transition.  Vacuums of power and institution are usually very dangerous. 

It's helpful that Libya is a small country and that the rebel groups have had some time to plan and develop patterns of cooperation.  I think it's also quite likely that we will see a U.N. or other regional mission heavily involved in the transition, including "boots on the ground" if things start to look like they might fall apart.  The European Union has a particularly strong incentive to prevent chaos in Libya.

As to democracy, we will probably see the country develop some facsimile thereof – if a big fight is avoided.  It won't be very functional and will probably be terribly disappointing to most Libyans, but it will probably stumble along with the leaders knowing that aid dollars are threatened if democracy is formally ended, and that open authoritarian rule by a member of one tribe raises the risk of return to conflict.

Gaddafi had been normalizing his relationship with the West, renouncing terrorism and vowing to dismantle his WMD [weapons of mass destruction] program in 2003.  In 2006, we even restored diplomatic relations. Then, recently, we've supported the rebels. Does this send a mixed message to other players in the Middle East about the benefits of cooperating?

Yes.  A dictator disliked by the United States who is developing WMD would almost surely conclude from Gaddafi's example that stopping the program would not make him safer.  On the other hand, a dictator who hadn't yet started developing WMD might look at this case and raise his estimate of the likelihood of intervention if he were to try.  So there are effects that could cut in opposite directions.

A general issue you raise here is interesting and important, and not much discussed.  The stronger and more effective the doctrine of humanitarian intervention gets, the harder it gets for us to make credible agreements for cooperation with dictators, even if such agreements might be advantageous at times.



James Fearon, Political Science: (650) 804 4081,

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,

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