With Muammar Qaddafi's reign in Libya all but finished, the question now becomes: What next? Nobody on the inside knows, and those of us on the outside—who haven't been privy to discussions between rebel leaders and their Western contacts—know less.
At least this time around, everyone understands (or should, anyway) that "regime change" marks only the beginning of the story, not the end. And, in any case, this time (a major difference between post-Qaddafi Libya and, say, post-Saddam Iraq), the Libyans will be in charge; it's been their war, and it will soon be their victory, not ours.
In this sense, President Barack Obama's policy of supporting the rebels only to the extent of doing things that nobody else can do—a policy decried by his critics as either too much or too little—has turned out to be just about right.
Without the precision bombing at the start of the conflict, the surveillance-and-attack drones later on, and the command-control networks throughout, the rebellion almost certainly would have been crushed. (My guess is that CIA and other Western nations' special-ops officers also helped train the rebel soldiers on the ground.)
At the same time, because the United States has kept a low profile (compared with other NATO nations, especially Britain, France, and Italy, which have a more vital interest in the fate of Libya), the "Pottery Barn rule"—you break it, you buy it—will not apply.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., issued a truly obnoxious statement today, congratulating "our British, French, and other allies, as well as our Arab partners, especially Qatar and the UAE, for their leadership in this conflict," adding, almost as an afterthought, "Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Qaddafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower."
First, six months, while longer than most people anticipated (and an eternity in the world of 24-hour cable news), is not a terribly long time for an operation to depose a dictator who's managed to stay in power for close to 42 years.
Second, if a pair of prominent Democrats had issued such a statement after, say, President George W. Bush helped to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan, they would have been condemned as bitter partisans or worse.
If Obama had launched a massive bombing campaign, much less put U.S. infantry troops on the ground (as some neoconservatives urged), and if Qaddafi had surrendered or died in the rubble of his palace as a result, the world—perhaps the rebels themselves—would have been incensed by the "imperialist aggression" and would have demanded that the United States restore order, then criticized us sharply if our effort fell short.
Still, even now, the Libyans cannot restore order or rebuild their country by themselves. Thanks in good part to Qaddafi's four decades of rule, they have no democratic traditions or institutions, their economy is in shambles, their military and police are in retreat, and—as much as the rebels have learned over the last few months about maneuvering against an enemy army and coordinating an assault on a city—it's an open question how well they'd be able to police that same city.
There are lessons to be learned from what was done, and not done, in the early months of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Let's hope that somebody is figuring out how to apply these lessons to Libya.
Impose law and order immediately.If the U.S.-led authorities had shot a few looters in the first days after Saddam Hussein fled Baghdad (instead of heralding the chaos as an exuberant expression of freedom, as Donald Rumsfeld did), the occupation of Iraq might have followed a very different course. After Qaddafi is toppled, the new powers, whoever they are, may declare a curfew, perhaps even martial law, at least for a while. This should not necessarily be cause for alarm; probably it's essential, not only to prevent pro-Qaddafi holdouts from continuing to fight but also to contain factional and tribal tensions among the rebels.