Even if Muammar Qaddafi manages to hold on to power in Tripoli—and this looks unlikely—there will be no going back to the old order in Libya or the region. The situation in Libya contrasts sharply with Tunisia and Egypt, where popular opposition confronted an entrenched leadership, and a disciplined military stepped forward to resolve the leadership crises. In Libya, armed factions are competing for power in a winner-take-all struggle, and there are few opportunities for compromise. Libya looks set for a protracted period of turmoil, and the strategic implications for North Africa, the Mediterranean, and transatlantic partners could be profound.
In the near-term, dealing with the movement of people will be at the top of the agenda. Much attention has been given to the dramatic migration across the Mediterranean affecting Southern Europe. This challenge comes at a time of economic stringency and a growing north-south divide within the European Union itself, all of which complicate the task of managing these new flows. But Libya’s North African neighbors already face an even greater challenge in this sphere, with porous land borders, migration pressures from their own south, and with very limited resources to manage the human security consequences. Tunisia has already witnessed an exodus of perhaps 100,000 people across its borders. Egypt is facing a similar refugee influx.
The transatlantic exposure to fallout from the Libya crisis goes well beyond the issue of energy security. Prolonged violence in Libya, coupled with greater movement of people, will also raise the specter of cross-border spillovers of criminality and political violence. A civil war in Libya would deepen the problems of arms smuggling and human trafficking that are endemic across the region. Groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, already active in Algeria and the Sahel, may find new opportunities for recruitment and organization if Libya becomes a zone of chaos. North African fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, who have been returning to the region, may well see a conflict-ridden Libya as a new theater of action, especially if the struggle for Libya acquires an Islamist dimension. A chaotic Libya could increase the risk of terrorism on both sides of the Mediterranean. A Qaddafi regime in its last days might revive the use of terrorism to lash out at its perceived regional and global adversaries. In the most extreme case, Qaddafi and his entourage might attempt to strike at Italian or other southern European targets, or ships offshore, with ballistic missiles that may remain in the Libyan arsenal.
The strategic stakes are high, and transatlantic partners have a strong interest in helping Libya’s neighbors on both sides of the Mediterranean address the security consequences of a violent and chaotic Libya. First, the United States and European partners should find ways of ensuring that the Qaddafi regime cannot reassert control over the country. A no-fly zone (including suppression of Libyan air defenses) may be necessary. It might also be worth considering the use of airpower to prevent the movement of forces loyal to Qaddafi while the opposition arms and consolidates its position. The preferred option, of course, is to avoid outside intervention altogether. But this must be weighed against the human security costs to the Libyan people, and the international security risks of increasingly violent and unpredictable regime in Tripoli.
Second, Libya’s North African neighbors need help—technical aid and assistance on the ground—in securing their borders against looming spillovers of terrorism and criminality, and an ongoing refugee crisis. This should be an obvious priority for the European Union as it refashions its Euro-Mediterranean strategy, including the troubled Union for the Mediterranean.
Third, there is a potentially critical role for NATO. The Alliance has had a Mediterranean Dialogue since 1996, but the initiative has struggled to find a practical basis for cooperation with its six southern Mediterranean partners. The security challenges flowing from conflict in Libya offer an opportunity for NATO to put its expertise and capability to use in cooperation with North African partners. Looking ahead, closer cooperation with NATO may contribute to the reform of civil-military relations and the security sector, as in Central and Eastern Europe before the enlargement of the Alliance. Without a UN mandate, some Alliance members may balk at direct NATO intervention in Libya. But there is still a great deal that the Alliance can do through its Mediterranean Dialogue to enhance the security of the region as a whole.
Finally, the Libyan crisis underscores the need for Europe and the United States to think about the Mediterranean as an area of strategic consequence in its own right. The ability to deal with the security implications of the Libyan crisis will be a key test of transatlantic cooperation, including EU-NATO coordination, in a region where—unlike Afghanistan or the Gulf—Europe’s and America’s capacity to act is relatively balanced. An explicit transatlantic strategy for the Mediterranean has never been more essential to European security, successful transition in North Africa, or American interests.