It is equally true that there have recently been some scenes of grotesque eagerness on the part of western companies and governments seeking to secure their respective ‘pieces' of Libya's oil and reconstruction pies. Image Credit: AP

Regular readers of this column will know that I have been sceptical of the international operation in Libya since its outset. Sceptical, but not opposed.

So, on the one hand, it was pleasing to see the 60-nation Friends of Libya group gather in Paris last week to help the sort-of-ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) unblock frozen financial assets and chart the country's future course.

On the other hand, it was a bit chilling to listen to the foreign leaders' rhetoric. It is far too soon for anyone to be taking a victory lap in Libya. The self-satisfied tone of the Paris meeting was an indication of where the next set of dangers in Libya lie.

My reservations about the international intervention in Libya have always focused on staying power rather than motivation. To be sure, the Nato alliance's operations over the last six months have been motivated in large part by self-interest: that is how international affairs work.

It is equally true that there have recently been some scenes of grotesque eagerness on the part of western companies and governments seeking to secure their respective ‘pieces' of Libya's oil and reconstruction pies.

I take no pleasure in reminding everyone that getting indignant about all this accomplishes nothing. Again, this, for better or worse, is how the world works.

But let us also be clear: anyone who thinks that the US, Britain or France are trying to ‘colonise' Libya and ‘steal its oil' is living in a fantasy world of Cold War-era ideology. Some western and/or Asian companies are going to make a lot of money in Libya over the next decade or so, but from that fact to colonialism is a long road indeed.

Even if western leaders wished to ‘recolonise' Libya (and, again, let's be clear: they don't) the Libyan revolutionaries would surely represent the biggest obstacle to that plan. Unfortunately, the same revolutionaries also represent the biggest obstacle to a peaceful future for the country.

Messy affairs

On one level it has been inspiring to see so much of Libyan society rise up in the name of throwing off a tyrant's yoke. Revolutions, however, are messy things and it is very premature for anyone to contend that this particular one is over.

The Libyan revolutionaries are a broad coalition. Among their senior figures one finds expatriate university professors, former (in a few cases, recent) Muammar Gaddafi's cabinet ministers and hardened Al Qaida fighters. It is hard to imagine all of these people continuing to get along now that the immediate enemy — Gaddafi — has been removed.

This fact represents the greatest challenge to the success of Libya's revolution, and it is also the area in which the international community most obviously has a positive role to play.

Make no mistake: there is a real danger that in the months to come Libya will dissolve into a state of nature. Preventing this (or, at least, trying) is one of the most important services the international community must offer Libya in the weeks and months to come.

Blowing a country apart is easy. Putting it back together with power sharing, some semblance of popular government and the rule of law is far, far harder.

The question is whether the international community will have the nerve to stay the course. Post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction (to use the formal, wonky, term) is, in many ways, tougher than conventional war.

Getting rid of Gaddafi was always going to be the easy part of the West's mission in Libya. The really hard part begins now.

Going forward, real engagement in Libya will require a commitment of years, not months. The West in general, and America in particular, have made a hash of this sort of thing in the past. From Somalia to Bosnia to Iraq the record is not good. Which is not to say that it cannot get better. One of the West's saving graces is the ability to (sometimes) learn from its mistakes.

The question is less what the West will back in terms of change than what it is willing to do to help positive change happen. In this regard the West's problem over the last generation has never been power itself but, rather, staying power.

Succeeding in Libya is going to involve far more than mere rhetoric, which is why last week's self-congratulatory words from Paris rang hollow. 

Gordon Robison teaches political science at the University of Vermont.