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Who'll Fill Void If Gadhafi Falls? U.S. Wishes It Knew

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, shown in a 2008 file photo, has created an incredibly centralized state, with all decisions going through him, says Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp.
Sergei Grits
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, shown in a 2008 file photo, has created an incredibly centralized state, with all decisions going through him, says Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp.

In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi's regime may be hanging on longer than many analysts expected, but few people doubt that at some point it will fall.

The big question swirling around Washington is who or what will fill the void. The United States only renewed ties with Libya a few years ago — and it is scrambling to identify the next power broker there.

When the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt crumbled under the weight of widespread protests, the U.S. could take some comfort in knowing — and having contact with — the people and institutions that would fill in temporarily.

Libya is a whole different situation. Relations between Washington and the Gadhafi regime have been turbulent over the decades, says Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp. who recently returned from Libya.

"You have to remember that relations began really in early 2009 with the opening of the embassy, and they've been quite incremental since then," Wehrey says. "And much of the evolution of the relationship has been ... held hostage to Gadhafi's whims."

Opportunities For 'Betting On The Wrong Horse'

Wehrey says for the past four decades, Libya has been an incredibly centralized state — all decisions had to run through Gadhafi. That made it difficult for the United States to get a sense of whom to engage beyond Gadhafi.

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed that U.S. embassy staff in Tripoli were only beginning to get a grasp of Libya's key players and their allegiances, says Dirk Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth and the author of A History of Modern Libya.

Vandewalle says this has hampered U.S. efforts to identify who may emerge as the next leader.

"I don't think the government, the U.S. government, at this point really has a very precise inkling of who's out there. And I just kind of hope that, as some of these people come forward, that we're picking the right ones," he says. "I think there are lots of opportunities here for, you know, betting on the wrong horse."

Vandewalle says as Gadhafi's regime crumbles, some figures could present themselves as the country's savior — members of his inner circle who have defected, tribal leaders, monarchists, even some charismatic local leaders in the cities now held by anti-government forces. Whether they have the political skills to form a governing coalition and the administrative experience to run a country is not clear.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told NPR the Obama administration is very conscious of the uncertainty that lies beyond Gadhafi's regime.

"You really don't have anyone emerging," she said. "But there is an effort in the east around Benghazi to try to begin putting together what is called an executive council, and we'll be certainly along with others reaching out to them to see how we can help."

A Lack Of Institutions

Part of the problem facing the United States and its allies is that through his four decades in power, Gadhafi equated political opposition with treason.

"He quashed that quite successfully," says Wehrey of the RAND Corp. "The general institutions that are needed for normal governance, especially in a democracy — trade unions, civil society, municipal councils — these were all effectively abolished or nonexistent."

Dartmouth's Vandewalle says the U.S. could reach out beyond Libya's borders — there are more than 100,000 Libyan exiles living in the United States, Britain and other Western nations. Vandewalle says some left in the early 1970s, not long after Gadhafi came to power.

"The problem, of course, is that a lot of the figures ... no longer really carry either recognition among Libyans or legitimacy because they've been gone for so long," he says. "So we could find some figures — but again, a very, very difficult task, I think."

Vandewalle says the United States must strike a fine balance by trying to identify potential new leaders without appearing to be manipulating the situation. He says it's up to the Libyans to decide who will next lead their country, even if it's messy and violent in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Gadhafi's regime.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.