A month ago this week, Libya held its first free and fair election in 40 years, only seven months after rebels toppled the murderous regime of Moammar Qaddafi with the help of a military intervention by the United States and its allies. The election in Libya have been compared primarily to the other recent elections in Arab Spring nations—namely Tunisia and Egypt. But Libya is also one of the formerly autocratic Middle Eastern countries in which the United States intervened militarily in the past 10 years that has since turned, or been pushed, toward democracy. Another of those countries, of course, is Iraq.
Equally obvious is this: The military intervention in Libya was very different from the one in Iraq. The United States deployed hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq, while in Libya, NATO and its Arab League allies conducted their U.N. Security Council-approved operations entirely from the sea and air. This strategy, unfortunately termed “leading from behind,” was welcomed by Americans sick of long, expensive, and foreign wars. Yet the Libya strategy also had the potential to backfire due to serious threats of insecurity and chaos during the country’s first election—precisely because the strategy did not put U.S. or allied forces on the ground that could be used to keep the peace.
Even in a country such as Libya, whose people have shown great enthusiasm for democracy, early elections can be a focus for violence. Competitive tensions are unleashed. Groups that expect to fare poorly at the polls may turn to violence to increase their power and influence. The newly formed governments in place before elections can lack the strong institutions and security forces needed to control such conflict. But, for the most part, this threat did not materialize in Libya. The election was largely peaceful, despite—and perhaps even because of—the lack of U.S. troops.
Admittedly, the election was not entirely without violence. Armed protestors in the eastern region of Cyrenaica, angry about the distribution of seats in the National Assembly—which gives the largest number of seats to the more populous region around the Libyan capital of Tripoli—shot down a helicopter carrying election supplies the day before the election and attacked several polling stations as voting got underway. But otherwise the election was surprisingly peaceful. Most areas of the country saw no violence at all, 94 percent of polling stations remained open, and turnout was an impressive 60 percent.
What’s more, the level of security was maintained not by a well-established, well-trained police or military force but rather by a mix of Libya’s fledgling official security forces, highly autonomous and often-fractious local militias, and even ordinary civilians, who stepped up to defend polling stations against protesters in Benghazi and other eastern cities.
In contrast, Iraq’s January 2005 elections—the first after the fall of longtime strongman Saddam Hussein—were less successful, despite major efforts by U.S. troops and the Iraqi government to ensure security. Those efforts included a strict curfew, bans on driving and weapons, and numerous roadblocks, plus the presence of 150,000 American troops and about as many U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. Yet Baghdad was still hit by “at least nine suicide bombers,” and more than 40 Iraqis were killed in attacks across the country.
Nationwide, turnout in Iraq was close to Libya’s, at just under 60 percent, but while Libya’s problematic eastern region still saw substantial turnout, voting in Iraq’s troublesome, Sunni-dominated Anbar province did not go nearly as well. Massive boycotts and threats of violence reduced turnout there to just 2.4 percent, seriously limiting Sunni representation in the resulting government and reducing its legitimacy. In other words, a huge American military presence—and an equally large training operation for Iraqi security forces—did not make Iraq’s first election any safer than the one in Libya.
In fact, the lack of an occupying force in Libya that could be identified as a common enemy by the many groups opposed to the transition probably made it harder for protesters to gather support, unite, and disrupt the election there in the way they did in Iraq.
Of course, the promising results of Libya’s elections cannot be entirely credited to the limited nature of the outside intervention. They are, in part, the result of the political and social conditions that prevailed in Libya when Qaddafi fell. Among those factors were the relatively weak Islamist parties compared to those in Egypt and Tunisia, which had been discredited by their links to the old regime, less powerful ethnic cleavages than those in Iraq, and a strong local opposition movement that allowed the lighter-footprint intervention in the first place.
To be sure, there are other issues on the horizon in Libya that will require more Western engagement and aid. Among them are the need to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate the still-powerful militias, create civilian-controlled professional security forces, and stop ongoing rights abuses against Libyan minority groups and migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa. But at the very least, Libya has managed to hold reasonably secure, free, and fair elections without any foreign troops to aid in the transition—something that Iraq was completely unable to do.
Indeed, the Libyan people even elected a surprisingly moderate, pro-Western president, who—although he may or may not cooperate fully with the United States—can hardly be a worse ally than the United States’s early Iraqi favorite Ahmad Chalabi, who provided false intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs and, as a result, helped drive our nation into an unnecessary war.
Libya’s first election wasn’t perfect and alone doesn’t guarantee a bright future. It will take years of effort by Libyans, with serious support and engagement from the United States and its allies, to build the freedom, equality, peace, and stability needed to make Libya a strong democracy. But the election does show that the limited U.S.-led intervention produced as good or better results than the invasion of Iraq with far lower financial and human costs.
Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Robert Ward is an Intern at the Center.