WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The West’s ferocious bombing campaign could spell doom for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, but what happens when he goes, Europe and America do not know.
Europe and the United States have been reluctant to develop a robust post-Gaddafi plan for Libya, wary of nation building after costly and unpopular efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the West’s apparent lack of a concrete plan unsettles development experts, who want to see quicker action to help Libyan rebels prepare a security and governing strategy.
“I’m astonished there hasn’t been more discussion of this. Gaddafi could leave tomorrow and we wouldn’t be ready,” said Daniel Serwer, an expert in post-conflict reconstruction at Johns Hopkins University.
“There’s a whole set of institutions that have to be created from scratch,” Serwer said. “The trick is not getting any one of them done perfectly, the trick is getting a whole complex set of things done halfway right.”
The prospect of a post-Gaddafi Libya will be center stage this week when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets in Abu Dhabi with peers from a coalition of countries formed to end his over 40-year rule.
The United States, France and Britain launched airstrikes March 19 ostensibly to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s forces. Western officials have said Gaddafi must go.
The air campaign, run by NATO, has yet to deliver a knock-out blow, and the rebels’ ground war against him has been inconclusive. NATO stepped up its bombing in recent weeks and deployed attack helicopters to target Gaddafi loyalists more precisely in built-up urban areas.
NATO officials say they are confident that sooner or later Gaddafi will leave and after months of bloody struggle Libya’s future will be at hand.
U.S. and European officials say preliminary planning for Libya’s next phase is under way in coordination with the rebel leadership in Benghazi, with the Libyans in the lead.
But progress on a strategy remains slow.
“There has been talk over the last couple of weeks about what is next, but we are just at the beginning. It is not as though we are handing out assignments,” said a Western diplomat with knowledge of the issue.
In the immediate aftermath of Gaddafi’s departure, security will be the first concern. Libya will need help to prevent chaos and bloodshed as scores are settled — requiring first a police force, but eventually a fully functioning court system and impartial judges to uphold the rule of law.
While NATO says it does not expect to have a major role, Western officials have suggested forces may be sent in after the war to help with emergency humanitarian aid. Any broader mandate would set off hard political calculations at home.
The rebel council has set up local councils in liberated cities and a national body tasked with developing plans for a new constitution and eventual democratic elections.
But there are questions about the council’s ability to take on so much work so quickly, as well as its capacity to become a more politically inclusive body.
Russia and China have recently opened contacts with the NTC, giving it a major boost.
But while France and a handful of other countries have extended formal diplomatic recognition to the group, the United States, pointedly, has not — a fact regional security experts say underscores nagging doubts in Washington over the council.
“The opposition has come up with some sort of vague idea of free and fair elections, and rewriting the constitution. But if there are more detailed plans, on anything, I don’t think they have been made public,” said David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s.
“That means we are left trying to guess what is going on.”
At the State Department, officials are drawing up a variety of scenarios, ranging from a quiet negotiated departure for Gaddafi following a ceasefire to one in which the entire structure of his government implodes violently.
Spearheaded by a “policy cell” of about 20 diplomats including the U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz, the U.S. planning process includes officials from the Pentagon, the Treasury, USAID and the Energy and Commerce Departments.
“We’ve got a pretty coordinated effort on the international scale, but it has to be stepped up,” said one senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If he falls tomorrow, someone has to be ready to fill that void.”
But the U.S. effort is determinedly low-key — reflecting both President Barack Obama’s insistence that the United States not take the lead in the conflict, and rising concern in Congress over U.S. engagement.
Obama has repeatedly ruled out sending in ground troops. But deep U.S. involvement in post-Gaddafi Libya could spur new debate as Obama heads into the 2012 election year saddled with escalating budget deficits and sluggish economic performance.
And for many Americans, the chaotic lessons of Iraq carry one strong message: don’t get involved again.
“It’s pretty clear the Obama administration does not want to take the lead and is not going assert itself in planning,” said Jim Dobbins, a former State Department and White House official who now specializes in post-conflict planning at the Rand Corporation.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who last week visited Benghazi for talks with rebel leaders, said the rebels badly needed to build out what he called their “embryonic” plans for the post-Gaddafi era.
“We’re encouraging the National Transitional Council to put more flesh on their proposed transition — to lay out in more detail this coming week what would happen on the day that Gaddafi went — who would be running what, how would a new government be formed in Tripoli?” Hague told the BBC.
The rebels are unhappy over slow Western moves to free up billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets they say are crucial to keep the fledgling government-in-waiting afloat.
Libya’s former ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujali, who now serves as an unofficial representative of the Benghazi council in Washington, said the money issue was crucial and despite repeated pledges has not been resolved.
“This is an emergency,” Aujali said in an interview at the ambassador’s elegant Washington residence, where he keeps a lonely vigil, working from the basement.
“I am not asking the United States to give us money. Libya has plenty of money in our accounts. But we need to pay our bills.”
With the United States trying to take a back seat, others are coordinating the international effort. Most expect it to be driven by the United Nations.
But here again, officials say work is still in its early stages — particularly for scenarios that would require immediate dispatch of peacekeepers should chaos erupt after Gaddafi’s departure.
“U.N. peacekeepers can take three months before they deploy once approved by the Security Council. We’d need something on the ground before that, so it would initially have to be done on a national basis,” one U.N.-based Western diplomat said.
Post-conflict planning meetings have been held on the sidelines of the Libya Contact Group, whose Abu Dhabi meeting opens on Thursday.
While previous meetings have focused largely on the military campaign, officials and analysts say the post-conflict plan must move to the foreground quickly.
“They should be talking about it now. But so far, there is a deafening silence,” said IHS Jane’s Hartwell.
Additional reporting by Missy Ryan and Lou Charbonneau; Editing by David Storey