Radical Islamism and the New Libyan Government

CNN has an interesting article about Abdul Hakeem Belhaj, a radical Islamist who is a prominent leader of the Libyan rebels whom the US and its allies have supported against Gaddafi. Belhaj has a long history of association with radical Islamist groups, including fighting for the Taliban against the US (he fled Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001).

The prominent role of such people among the rebels highlights one of the risks of the US intervention Libya that I noted here: the possibility that the new government will be as bad or worse than the old. If radical Islamists take over the new regime, their rule would likely be just as oppressive as Gaddafi’s was. In addition, they could use Libya’s oil wealth to sponsor anti-Western terrorism, something Gaddafi has abjured since cutting a deal with the US and Britain in 2003.

To be sure, Belhaj claims that he doesn’t want to establish an Islamist regime and has no desire to support terrorism against the US. However, this is what we would expect him to say at a time when he still needs US support against the remnants of Gaddafi’s regime. Even if he is sincere on these points, other radical Islamists among the insurgents may not be.

It’s also possible that a radical Islamist government will be deterred from supporting terrorism by fear of US retaliation. That still, however, would not make the Libya intervention a success. After all, Gaddafi had been similarly deterred since at least 2003. If a nonterrorist but highly oppressive new government takes power, we would still have gained nothing from removing him.

Obviously, not all of the Libyan rebels are radical Islamists, and it’s far from clear that Belhaj and others like him will control the new regime. A much better outcome is certainly possible, perhaps even probable. On the other hand, many historical examples demonstrate the advantages that well-organized, ruthless radicals have in a revolutionary situation. Often, they can seize power even if more moderate groups have greater public support. The French Revolution, Russia in 1917, Cuba in 1959, and 1979 Iran are among the best examples of this phenomenon.

I worry that the Obama administration and its European allies have not given this problem sufficient consideration. Obama’s greatest success in Libya so far has been to facilitate Gaddafi’s overthrow with only a minimal commitment of US and NATO forces. But that very minimalism will make it more difficult for the US and its allies to prevent radical Islamists from taking over if the latter win the internal struggle for power among the rebels after Gaddafi is gone.

On this point, Obama’s failure to follow the Constitution by getting congressional authorization for the Libya war also increased the chance of failure on the ground. Given the narrow base of political support for the intervention and the lack of “buy-in” by Congress, Obama will find it difficult to increase our level of commitment if it becomes necessary to do so to stave off a radical Islamist takeover. Even setting aside legal considerations, he might well have done better to either get congressional authorization or not intervene in Libya at all.