Libya’s Transitional National Council reported today that the former dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, is dead. This occurred as his final stronghold of Sirte fell to the former rebels who toppled his regime.
The most important consequence for the U.S. is not Qaddafi’s personal demise—welcome as that will be—but the political transition that now begins with the final end of the war. This event should trigger a process that will lead to elections in eight months. A new constitution and more elections then follow. Before all of this, new ministers will be chosen immediately to run various government departments in Libya.
In short, this is the critical phase in which the future of Libyan democracy will be decided. Also at stake is what kind of ally Libya will be and how the new Libya will affect the region.
As in other Middle Eastern countries that have undergone political transitions since the 2003 removal of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, we can be sure the bad guys will have their game on. These come in the form of Islamists, who have proven adept recently at using democratic processes to undermine democracy—especially where chaos reigns.
Libya has much going for it to prevent this bad outcome. The country is geographically and characteristically distant from the current regime in Iran, which remains the world’s foremost exponent of Islamism and its terrorist vanguard.
Furthermore, the Libyan people and the preponderance of their wartime leaders have demonstrated little appetite for anything other than real democracy. Their liberated cities have been administered admirably. And with victory coming at their own hands, along with help from allies, the Libyan people will feel an ownership of their new government from the beginning.
The U.S. should support this transition with the key things the new government needs to be successful. Most import among these is money—their own money. Now that the country is unified, there is no excuse to delay the unfreezing of all of the former Qaddafi government’s funds abroad. The new Libyan government will need this to maintain order and support its cities until oil exports and the private economy can be resumed—and hopefully liberalized.
The Obama administration should get serious about this. Hillary Clinton was in Libya earlier this week sounding more like a Peace Corps director than a secretary of state. She doled out $11 million in U.S. taxpayer funds for medical care, among other things. While that was undoubtedly welcome, it missed the point.
One can only hope the Obama White House approaches transitional Libya with more ability and clear thinking than it has next door in Egypt, for example. There it opposed the removal of the authoritarian leader and is now botching its interaction with the ensuing political contest, first lamenting potential Islamist ascendancy and then inexplicably reaching out to the Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Libyan victory, like the broader Arab Spring and the uprising in Iran before it, creates the potential to make massive inroads against the Islamists who have had Americans and American interests in their crosshairs for so long. But as with any revolution, there is risk. It is not too much to ask that the White House figure out how to support real Libyan democracy. Doing so is important to keeping America safe.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-09. He is author of the new book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books).