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The road ahead in Libya

Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, shares his thoughts on how Libya can move forward with a regime transition.

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Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin. A leading global historian, Suri studies foreign policy, international relations and social change. He is especially interested in how past experiences can better inform policymaking today. He teaches courses on the history of international affairs, global strategy and contemporary politics. His new book “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama” will be published in September 2011.

Jeremi Suri

Professor Jeremi Suri Photo: Sasha Haagensen

Unseating a dictator is usually a difficult and violent process. That has surely been the case for the rebel forces in Libya, and their international supporters, who finally took control of Tripoli on Aug. 22. The end of Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year tyranny, however, is only just the beginning of an uncertain and challenging transition.

Historians have studied regime transitions in many countries coming out of dictatorship. Each case is unique, but there are some similarities that are worth articulating as Libyans struggle to reform their society.

First, the figures who directed the revolt against the old regime are rarely the best people to lead the new government. Fighting a revolution and governing a new state are two very different tasks. Defeating an entrenched dictator requires savvy battlefield skills, some brutality and targeted intimidation. Managing a society in transition calls for a much lighter touch, including the ability to build consensus, persuade and flatter. The rebel hero is a militant; the governing leader must be a manager.

Second, foreign supporters of the new government must help, but they must also choose their moments carefully. Too little external assistance during a period of transition contributes to suffering, insecurity and resentment among citizens. They quickly turn to demagogues who promise quick solutions, often with more violence. Too much external intervention encourages dependence, corruption and resentment of foreigners who seem to be profiting at the cost of locals. The aid giver quickly becomes a perceived imperialist.

Map of Libya

Map of Libya Image: Courtesy of Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection

Navigating this dilemma of too little or too much assistance is not impossible. The United States and other big powers must work closely together with local figures, they must think carefully about the areas where they can help most effectively, and they must show respect for the country, the culture and its people. External assistance should appear temporary and targeted for local needs during a period of transition. Americans and other foreigners must act as visiting guests, not aggressive know-it-alls.

Third, and perhaps most important, everyone involved in a regime transition must recognize that change is uneven and unpredictable. There are no formulas, laws or simple rules for nation-building. The historical record makes that clear. Transitions succeed only when the key domestic and foreign actors articulate basic principles and work toward them, continually adapting to new circumstances and challenges. This requires frank communication, serious analysis of day-to-day events and frequent adjustments. Creating a new government after dictatorship is an art, and it demands courageous, creative and open-minded leaders.

The future for Libya is bright because the country has rich resources, many foreign supporters and a new group of empowered figures who have unseated a terrible dictator in the name of the people. Making good on the promise of a New Libya will not be easy, but the first step is to acknowledge the difficulties and begin a conversation about identifying leaders, processes and partners for the next few months. After all, Rome was not built in a day.