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David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were careful during their first visit to Libya since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi to avoid anything evoking comparisons with President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” rhetoric after the occupation of Iraq. They know how his imperial arrogance and premature declaration of victory came back to haunt him.
Their caution is sensible given that it is too early to say exactly what Britain and France have accomplished in Libya. Col Gaddafi is gone, but it is unclear what will replace him. In power in Tripoli, he provided a focus for a broad but disparate coalition of Libyans struggling to defeat him. Now that his followers hold only a few beleaguered towns, there is not much to bind together these lawyers from Benghazi, former Islamist guerrillas and defecting members of the old regime, who will be Libya’s next rulers.
Britain, France and other foreign powers are uncertain of their status in the new Libya. The rebels’ success would not have been without NATO. The final collapse of the Gaddafi regime came not only because of NATO air strikes, but because French and British planners played a commanding role in the military campaign.
It is uncertain how much political influence the NATO powers most involved in the war will enjoy, though presumably it will be large. Members of the National Transitional Council (NTC) have tried to show they are not push-overs when it comes to dealing with their foreign allies by rejecting suggestions they should send Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, to Britain. At the same time, the chairman of the NTC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, implied that the countries which led the NATO intervention would be regarded favorably in commercial dealings.
This is someway down the road. The war is not entirely over. Damage to oil facilities is not severe, but it will take time for Libya to again export 1.3 million barrels of oil a day. As the government established itself, the scramble for a share in Libya’s oil wealth will intensify.
This has been a backdrop to the war from the beginning in a way that was never quite true to the same extent in Iraq. ENI of Italy, BP of UK, Total of France, OMV of Austria and Repsol YPF of Spain will all look to see how far they turn the post-war situation to their advantage. Any incoming Libyan government will be wary of giving credibility to Gaddafi’s claim that the rebels were pawns of foreign powers and oil companies aiming to steal Libya’s only asset.
A problem is that, whatever happens in Libya, it is difficult to see a strong government emerging. It will continue, to a greater or lesser degree, to be reliant on NATO powers. Gaddafi prevented the development of independent political and social groups so it is difficult to see how an elected “National Congress”, as is provisionally planned, will be able to assert its authority.
There is not just the divisions and disruption of war to be considered. Some members of the NTC speak of putting apolitical civil servants and technicians back to work, though this not an unmixed blessing given the ramshackle nature of Gaddafi’s state machine.
So far Libyans and foreigners have reassured themselves with the mantra that Libya is not Iraq or Afghanistan. It is true there is not the same legacy of war, communal and sectarian hatred. On the other hand, many successful national liberations have been followed by nasty and violent struggles to see who will be top dog.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq and Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq