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Outside editorial: Gadhafi's exit, Libya's victory

Posted: August 29, 2011 - 8:28pm

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

The fighting’s not over in Libya, but thanks to the courage of its people, Moammar Gadhafi’s despotic reign is finished.

As they savor their triumph, the victors must heed the critical lesson of Iraq: Dislodging a dictator is easier than creating a nation at peace with itself and its neighbors.

Fortunately, a national unity council composed of leaders from various factions has been working for months to devise a viable, post-Gadhafi future for the nation.

In this, Libya is luckier that Iraq. Its tribal society will have to contend with factionalism, but not with the bitter Sunni/Shia divide that fueled years of Iraqi terrorism. Another plus: Libya doesn’t have mischief-making Iran next door.

Libya’s rebels have also disavowed widespread reprisals against Gadhafi loyalists. That’s crucial. A purge similar to the “de-Baathification” campaign that turned Saddam Hussein’s onetime supporters into an army of enemies would invite chaos.

For the United States and its NATO allies, the Libyan revolt is a signal victory with significant implications.

The overthrow of Gadhafi effectively undercuts the second-guessing about the role of the U.S.-European alliance.

This was a cause that NATO and the Obama administration absolutely had to take on. After months of tepid warnings and ineffectual U.N. resolutions, it became clear earlier this year that the only choices were to act decisively or stand idly on the sidelines while Gadhafi slaughtered his own people. Doing nothing was not an option.

Events in Libya vindicate the decision and reinvigorate the Arab Spring. There is no guarantee that these rebellions will produce democracies — historically, the odds may be against it — but a new Middle East is not possible unless the corrupt and decrepit old order is swept away.

This gives the budding forces of modernity a chance to take root. And it is far likelier that a forward-looking region that embraces both Islamic traditions and universal human rights values will emerge if Western nations are seen as friends of these new societies. This is why U.S. and NATO support for Libya’s rebels was necessary.

Significantly, it was done largely without having to put boots on the ground. That’s another lesson from the Iraqi episode. Western military power can make a difference. But the arms, support, intelligence, and advice other nations provide will lead to an authentic victory only when indigenous forces are willing to lead the fight for their own liberation.

The United States has paid an enormous price for failing to understand that going into Iraq.

The fall of Gadhafi is bad news for Syrian President Bashar Assad. He will stop at nothing to remain in power, but Syrians are fed up. They refuse to be cowed into submission. Europe and the United States have responded with calibrated sanctions and calls for Assad to step down, to no avail.

That proved to be a mistake for Gadhafi, as it is for Assad. Guns and thugs can’t stop the tide of upheaval sweeping through the Arab world.

No one wants to repeat the destructive exercise in Libya, but if Assad chooses to drown the revolt in blood instead of bowing to demands for reform, Western leaders may once more have to act decisively.

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