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The Dangers of Post-Conflict States

That’s a fascinating scoop in the Washington Post today about the apparent discovery in Libya of hundreds of artillery shells filled with highly toxic mustard gas. Suspicion has fallen on Iran as the supplier of these chemical weapons which Muammar Qaddafi kept hidden even after promising in 2004 to turn over all his weapons of mass destruction as part of a deal with the U.S. that included the lifting of sanctions and the removal of Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This has myriad lessons to teach us. Two in particular leap out.

First and foremost, it shows the difficulty of making deals with dictators. The Bush agreement with Qaddafi was still, on balance, a good one, I think–certainly it prevented Libya from making any more progress toward nuclear status, the ultimate nightmare and one that might have kept Qaddafi in power this year. But it also shows it’s impossible to trust a dictator to keep his word, and that, even with stringent safeguards in place in a relatively small country, it’s still possible to conceal nefarious activity. This should temper the enthusiasm still remaining in some quarters for cutting deals with North Korea, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, Russia, and a long list of other supposed “peace partners.”

Second, it also highlights the dangers of post-conflict states which are not well-policed. Libya still has not managed to disarm militias or create a central government, thus raising the danger that militants will be able to get their hands on potent weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles or chemical shells. It’s good to read in the Washington Post that both of the sites with chemical weapons “are under heavy guard and round-the-clock surveillance by drones,” but I would feel more confident if there were international peacekeeping forces deployed to guard these high-risk sites.

It’s a good thing Qaddafi is gone, and it will be even better if other dictators (e.g. Assad of Syria) are also deposed–but we need to be concerned about the aftermath and work to ameliorate the worst possible consequences.


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