The sight of loony and oppressive former Libyan Dictator Gaddafi ought to be a cautionary tale for other dictators in the region. Gaddafi, like Barre in Somalia, sought to hold together his oppressive rule, which had been supported (or at least tolerated) by other nations (not least other African nations, as well as world powers) because Libya (like Somalia, Iraq, and plenty of other nations around the world) appears to lack sufficient asabiya to hold itself together in the absence of a strong dictator. If you want to force people together who do not want to be together, you have to do so by coercion rather than those means that freedom loving Westerners like myself generally find acceptable. And yet I support the Union’s successful destruction of the rebel separatist regime, which would (correctly) suggest that my support of separatist movements is not automatic.
Nonetheless, Libya is at a crossroads, and it also presents a very ugly scenario for a couple of other dictators in the region (namely the current dictators of Syria and Yemen). Yemen’s dictator has already had to take a leave of absence from Yemen to Saudi Arabia because of health concerns, and the sight of a fellow strongman being killed, dragged through the streets of his hometown, and generally shamed ought to be giving him nightmares in his sleep. I doubt the Yemeni rebels would do anything more respectful with his corpse than the Libyan rebels did, nor do I doubt that Yemen itself has some major separatist problems (most notably the omnipresent threat of Aden to separate from Northern Yemen in the absence of firm leadership on the part of the north).
The same is true of Syria. Syria’s leadership by a small Baathist minority spearheaded by the small Alawai minority and opposed by both Kurdish separatists as well as the Sunni majority puts Bashir Assad, a dynastic dictator, in a dangerous position. Knowing he is in a minority and unwilling to face trial like former Egyptian Hosni Mubarak, Assad has risked international hostility from NATO forces by opening a bloodbath on his own restive population. Now that President Obama and his NATO allies are about to declare ‘mission accomplished’ in Libya, it is not inconvenient for those same forces to now turn their attention to Syria, which is a short cruise on the Mediterranean from the shores of Tripoli. If I were Mr. Assad, I would not want to encourage them to make the cruise and practice their gunnery against my palaces and installations in order to prop up some bogus and weak Transitional National Government and further the spread of Islamism in the Middle East, with all that means for minority peoples like Christians in the area.
Nor is Libya necessarily going to be a lot better of a place now that Gaddafi has received his just desserts and is now taking a sandnap. After all, Libya itself has a strong threat to facing Somalification. To wit, the region that spearheaded the initial uprising against Gaddafi is a region with strong separatist tendencies. Just as Somaliland started the hostility to Barre’s regime in the ongoing Somali civil war, and has been free (and unrecognized) since then, so the region of Cyrenaica spearheaded the initial insurrection against Gaddafi. And there are plenty of dangerous cross-currents. Could resurgent Islamists behave like Al-Shabab in Somalia? It’s certainly possible. Will neighboring nations like Egypt and even faraway powers like Qatar, to say nothing of European nations like Italy, seek to bolster parties to ensure access to Libya’s natural resources or to prefer a weak and divided Libya to a powerful one? Almost certainly. Is Libya’s explosive mixture of Tripoli, Cyrenaica, and the mostly Berber-Tuareg Fezzan a basketcase just waiting for an ugly partition with fights over the distribution of wealth from Libya’s natural resources? It would appear so from this somewhat jaded observer.
The end result is that Libya is in a very delicate situation, with a weak transitional government, a lot of competiting (and possibly incompatible) visions for the future, and the strong potential of exporting its problems to other nations. And like the Kurds of northern Iraq, the cultural and ethnic tensions within Libya have plenty of dangers for other nations nearby as well, as has already been discussed here. The Somalification of Libya is a very real possibility unless a regime can achieve power fairly quickly as well as a broad-based legitimacy. This appears unlikely, so the realistic best-case scenario is some kind of fairly weak coalition government with a substantial amount of devolution to Libya’s regions. In short, this situation looks like Belgium  and Iraq  all over again, unless someone is able to become the next strongman, in which case we will have Gaddafi 2.0.
These are not pleasant options, but this is the reality of nations like Libya (as well as Syria and Yemen and many others). Where sufficient social cohesion is lacking to form a legitimate and broadly supported civil government, the options left available shrink to the poles of anarchy (partition, separation, and division), and tyranny. Where tyranny is opposed by the force of arms in support of some dubious desire to spread democracy where the soil appears unready, the result is anarchy and civil unrest. Before we topple tyrants we need to do a much better job of understanding the reality of the societies they rule.
Tyrants exist not because governments are too strong, but because the alternatives of civilian government are often seen as too weak. They are a sign of insecurity and weakness within ruling elites, not of the strength they often wish to project through the world through powerful militaries and decisive leaders. The fact that many nations have struggled with dictators in recent decades suggests that most states in the world are weak and terribly divided, and lacking in legitimacy. How to form, or encourage the formation, of legitimate governments where they are lacking is a daunting task, requiring nearly supernatural insight and nearly omnipotent power. I am not optimistic on the prospects of trying to keep nations like Libya and Iraq together, and if Syria and Yemen (and others) join them, then we are like Dr. Frankenstein trying to patch together a body politic out of corpses from a cemetery, and just as likely to create a horrible monster. Is that what we want?