August 26, 2011; Source: New York Times | Whether one thinks that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a justified search for weapons of mass destruction accompanied by the overthrow of a dangerous tyrant or an unjustified and illegal example of American military adventurism, there is probably more agreement that the U.S. occupation of Iraq has gone on longer than anyone wanted or anticipated. With the deterioration of security conditions there recently, it might go on even longer. The American hand in rebuilding the government of Iraq has been a heavy one indeed.

In Libya, President Obama has had somewhat more success than his predecessor had in Iraq by “leading from behind.” Is there something to be learned for Libya from the U.S. experience in Iraq—or from the continuing and perhaps even less successful attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan? 

A British author, Parliament member, deputy governor of two Iraqi provinces as part of the British military forces there, and director of a charity working in Afghanistan named Rory Stewart advises the U.S. to be modest. “There are no more Marshal Plan moments,” Stewart advises. He warns that Western powers will be pressured “to do something, anything,” and that “if they do, they may suddenly become occupiers…crowd[ing] out Libyan capacity, misunderstand[ing] its culture, [and] be[ing] loathed and yet unable to leave.” 

Oxford economist Paul Collier advises that the NATO forces should choose proven “downloadable” models that sound like they draw from a lot of the best of nonprofit experience: “Build transparency throughout the entire public spending chain, so as to attract good politicians and repel bad ones…Build politics from the bottom up, focusing on the local, letting national politicians emerge…[B]uild…transparent audit systems…”

But even that kind of assistance should be modest, according to Ashraf Ghani, chairman of Transition Commission in Afghanistan, who says that post-Qaddafi Libya “will be faced with swarms of NGOs, contractors, development, security and information technology organizations and consultants. Acquiring the capability to differentiate between wheat and chaff in this arena is going to be critical.”

That may be the toughest part of the prescription for nonprofits wanting to help in Libya. NPQ Newswire has already done plenty of reporting on the overflow of NGO assistance in Haiti, with dubious effects, including the undesired result of keeping Haiti dependent on NGO behind-the-scenes governance and keeping the incredibly weak Haitian public sector debilitated and chaotic. 

According to the New York Times, “Part of getting Libya right, then, may be letting it be.” Will U.S. and other western nonprofits find the ability to say, as Stewart said, “Yeah, that’s a horrible situation, but there may not be anything that we can do about it”—or should do about it?—Rick Cohen