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The Libyan revolution is coming to a rapid end, although there is fighting left to do. Twenty-seven weeks ago, Muammar Qadhafi's armed forces fired on peaceful protestors across Libya. Today, he's in hiding, and a rebel army that didn't exist six months ago, combined with NATO's air power, has managed to take control of most of the country.
Let me point out a basic truth: that was really fast.
It doesn't seem particularly fast to Westerners, because the rapid developments in other places and the Ritalin-addict speed of our news cycle makes a six-month war seem long. We're used to having the conventional phase of a war over within weeks. It took much longer than the Egyptian Revolution (or the part of the ongoing Egyptian Revolution that was covered on American cable), because the regime decided to fight. It took much too long for Obama to justify his actions under the War Powers Act. But it was still very fast. In fact, one of the problems that NATO policymakers face is that the rebels are winning faster than expected, and the Western policymakers haven't put any transition plans together. (This, of course, presumes that the Libyans need and will gladly accept a Western transition plan.)
A lot of complaints you hear from Westerners are, in one way or another, grounded in impatience. There was the now-discredited argument that the rebels could not win without Western ground troops, an argument that implies that it is unreasonable to wait 180 days for an army of irregulars to defeat well-equipped professional troops. There is the surreal and scurrilous complaint by Senators McCain and Graham this morning, who insist that President Obama should have taken a larger role in backing the rebels (because apparently success is not enough, and success without American casualties is, from McCain and Graham's pathological perspective, somehow unpatriotic). And of course, there are the realistic worries about the future of Libya which are expressed as an unrealistic concern that the Transitional Council doesn't have a plan yet.
The future of Libya really is worrying. But if they had a plan already, that would be even more worrying. The transition Libya is about to begin may succeed or fail, but it certainly won't succeed with a plan put together hastily.
This morning I came across a complaint that the rebels don't have any clear leader. That's true. But having a clear individual leader, before they've put together any kind of governance or power-sharing plan, is not at all a good thing. What was the Qadhafi regime but an individual leader who took precedence over any other governmental principle? The quickest transition is always a coup by a strong man, who doesn't worry about process but simply grabs operational control and keeps it. That's also the most inefficient and undemocratic transition; strong men don't deal with the country's real problems and needs. They don't fix underlying tensions or nagging dysfunctions. They just grab a country with all its flaws and hold on as long as they can.
Working out a sane political future for Libya is only possible if it happens slowly and peaceably, with the Libyans themselves working out an arrangement that includes all of the necessary political constituencies and ensures a functional administration. You can't achieve that in a minute. It requires a set of complicated negotiations and compromises. And you can't plan it from London or Paris or DC, because the people who need to compromise and negotiate and share power are not in those places. In fact, the nature of Qadhafi's regime, which suppressed most public political expression, ensures that Western policymakers don't have any idea who the real constituencies are or what concerns they have.
Actual nation-building, working out a viable set of political arrangements and building a functioning national administration, takes time. It took the United States something like a decade and a half, if you include the Revolutionary War years, to work out a practical and effective set of basic governing institutions, and the work continued well after that. The Transitional National Council hasn't even been on the job for six months.
The Libyans, acting on their own and dealing with their own internal political realities, could still make a mess of their country. That would be all too easy. And taking more time won't ensure success. But haste, in this case, ensures failure.
What the Libyans need, when the last shooting is over, is time to work out a plan that they can live with for the next 20 to 200 years. During that time, they need to keep domestic peace and to keep basic government services like water, energy and transportation working uninterrupted. They may not get that time. They may not manage to use it. But if they don't, they will have a new set of problems that will haunt them for decades.