Lessons Learned from the Libyan Conflict

David M. Abshire, Ph.D (President and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, 1999-present; Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1983-1987)


The Libyan rebels have seen great advances in recent days as they have stormed into Tripoli and taken Muammar Gaddafi’s compound. With the hunt on for a seemingly absent dictator, NATO nations are questioning what the replacement government will look like. Will we see the overthrow of a dictator in exchange for a self-sustaining democracy, or will Libya fall into the hands of another dictator who reigns in power via ideological rhetoric?

As Libya sheds the throes of Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year-long dictatorship, the country will have to proactively move forward to ensure the greatest success for building an effective and long-lasting government wherein its citizens can enjoy the benefits of peace and liberty. As they look to make the transition to liberty, it would behoove nations hoping to see the successful implementation of democracy to help them make the changes.

Simply providing blueprints for democracy is not enough.

The American Revolution was successful inasmuch as it released the colonies from the ever-tightening grip of King George III. However, the government set up to replace the crown was inherently weak—for fear of too much power being held by a head of state—and the newly formed nation found itself on the precipice of destruction by 1786 when the Annapolis Convention convened. Thankfully for the subsequent generations, the Constitutional Convention that followed produced a guideline for governance in America that facilitated the potential of the nation to later become great both domestically and internationally. The convention would not have been a success if not for the great men who exercised enormous  civility and constraint in devising a compromise that would benefit the entire nation, not their individual states (or egos).

If the United States is the poster child for the success of a new nation with an initially weak government, then Germany in the years following the Treaty of Versailles stands as the opposite. Following the defeat of the German army and the humiliating treaty stipulations, Germany was charged with the obligation that it must institute a democratic government wherein the leaders would be elected by the people and the citizens would enjoy the same freedoms afforded to other Western nations. However, other European nations hurriedly returned home to rebuild, and Americans were once again overtaken by isolationist fervor. With only examples of democracy, and no meaningful help in the implementation, Germans fell into despair as they also had to grapple with the harsh realities of an unfair treaty. The despair and humiliation coupled with a weak and uninspiring government eventually gave rise to a powerful orator who was able to give solutions, hope and pride to the nation. The rest, as they say, is history.

The situation in Libya is reminiscent of these two examples—with so much unknown, there is potential for it to go either way. They could see liberty and prosperity enshrined in a great democratic nation, or they could fall into a pattern not so dissimilar from the German model. Nations who wish to see the successful implementation of a friendly democracy come to fruition should actively engage the rebels and aid the Libyans in creating a stable society and free elections, so as to avoid the potential takeover of another dictator. If a new democratic government can offer support and sustain its society, Libya will be yet another example of the successful fulfillment of a government predicated on freedom.