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MARGARET WENTE

Libyan spring? Not so fast Add to ...

Nobody will miss Moammar Gadhafi, the loon of Libya. From the Lockerbie bombing to the siege of Benghazi, he has been a plague upon humanity for 40 years. Now he’s all but toast. Perhaps they’ll hang him in the public square.

Of course, if Western humanitarians have their way, Col. Gadhafi will be packed off to the International Criminal Court, where he might be found guilty in a decade or so. If they have their way, the National Transitional Council, now recognized by half the world as the legitimate government of Libya, will declare a general amnesty. With the help of the United States and Europe, it will pave the way, in the words of U.S. senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for “a transparent and inclusive political process, a free and independent media, an impartial system of justice and the rule of law, a free economy, and unified, professionalized security forces that answer to civilian authority.” And, of course, a functioning democracy where ancient tribal loyalties give way to one man, one vote.

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Then again, maybe not. Another possibility is that the rebel fighters, who have been described by The Globe and Mail’s Graeme Smith as a ragtag bunch of undisciplined, untrained young men, will take their blood revenge on the streets of Tripoli. You’d have to be deluded to believe their leaders are ready for prime time (even though our novice foreign minister, John Baird, is gushingly impressed with them). Just last month, NTC members murdered one of their own military leaders, although who did it, or why, nobody knows. What happens if the rebel factions turn on each other? Will NATO switch sides to protect the people it has armed the rebels to attack? Will the UN send in peacekeepers? Will Canada be asked to replace its aircraft pilots with boots on the ground?

If you get the feeling the Western allies haven’t thought this through, you’re right. They appear to be making it up as they go along. As for Canada’s involvement, the only rationale is that NATO called, so we answered. Our media (which always need good guys and bad guys, for storytelling reasons) are generally depicting the fall of Tripoli as a triumph for the good guys. But it may really be a triumph for the forces of chaos and anarchy.

“The likelihood of a very bloody fight for Tripoli is high,” writes Middle East expert Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest. “NATO is not in a position on the ground to do anything about it.” The problem, he explains, is cultural. European wars are fought by European rules, where the enemy is given an honourable way out and is therefore not obliged to fight to the last man. Tribal rules are different. The main rule is that the defeated tribe is “politically, socially, economically and, often to some extent, literally decapitated” in order to make sure its ranks will not rise up in revenge. Yet despite the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, Westerners seem oblivious to tribal rules. We still seem to think that with a helping hand from us, Libyans will start behaving the way we want them to.

Have we learned nothing? Evidently not. Just as with Afghanistan, the starry-eyed idealists who are all gung-ho over rescuing Libya have developed a serious case of mission creep. What started as a limited objective (defend the civilians of Benghazi) grew quickly to embrace regime change, and could yet metastasize into nation-building. You’d think we’d know by now that it’s awfully easy to get in – and much harder to get out.

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