How Not to Intervene in Libya

Pundits and politicians are promoting all kinds of dangerous ideas for taking down Qaddafi. Here are five rules Obama should consider before plunging in blindly.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Heading into its fourth week, the uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya has deteriorated into a war of attrition, pitting two sides against each other — the rebels and loyalists of the Libyan army aided by a number of mercenaries — that both comprise a collection of distinctly unprofessional and loosely organized forces. Most are tied directly or indirectly to families, tribes, or the different provinces and have no overall unified command-and-control structure that would ensure a quick victory for either side.

Although the Qaddafi forces may have the advantage in military hardware, as in all wars of attrition the outcome of the struggle will be determined by a combination of factors: each side’s overall military strength, the coherence of each group’s military plans, the ability to keep up morale among each side’s supporters, the possession of sufficient financial resources, the ability to convince group members that they still represent the winning side, the personal characteristics of each side’s leadership, and perhaps the approbation or disapproval of the international community.

No matter how long this war of attrition takes, it is almost unavoidable that Qaddafi will lose. Although he has the financial resources and, for now, still loyal military brigades around him, his options will gradually narrow as the actions of the international community and his forces’ inability to reconquer the eastern part of Libya gradually take their toll in undermining his credibility to represent himself as the leader of a unified country.

If this assumption is correct, it raises two essential questions for Washington. Despite America’s checkered past in Libya, the administration will want to answer these questions early on as it struggles for a coherent policy and the debate among top officials flares up. First, what can the United States do to help ensure that the rebel side prevails? Second, how can it do so without jeopardizing America’s standing among the different family, tribal, and provincial factions that will inevitably emerge in a post-Qaddafi Libya where all rivalries and divisions have been violently suppressed for more than four decades?

Asking these questions is, of course, much easier than answering them. Of all the uprisings shaking the region, events in Libya present the United States with some of the most difficult challenges so far. The U.S. government has very little on-the-ground intelligence and very little deep, long-standing expertise on the country. Into this vacuum has stepped the usual gaggle of pundits, instant experts who likewise understand very little about the country’s history, and grandstanding politicians from both sides of the aisle. Yet no one in any meaningful policymaking position in Washington has thus far declared that what happens in Libya is of national interest to the United States.

As the Obama team finds its way tentatively toward a Libya policy, torn by these conflicting opinions, here are a handful of guidelines about possible U.S. involvement in Libya’s immediate future from a longtime observer. We should keep in mind that we will encounter a Libya that will not only be torn and traumatized by multiple, deep-seated social and economic divisions, but will also, as part of its historical legacies, be extremely reluctant to see any outside power deliberate on its behalf.

You cannot divide and conquer. For a number of reasons, both Libyans and the international community have an interest first and foremost in keeping the country unified. The United States should resist recognizing any regional body — such as the recently created Libyan National Council in Cyrenaica, which France has just recognized — as the legitimate representation of the country. The resentment within Tripolitania and Fezzan would be enormous — and both regions are needed to keep the country’s economy running and the country itself intact. And though the rebels may claim they represent Libya, they clearly do not at this point; they are a collection of Cyrenaica-based tribal leaders, notables, and former military personnel that leaves Tripolitania in the cold.

Don’t fall into Qaddafi’s trap. Although the no-fly-zone option has seemingly become the lodestar for many in judging the administration’s response to events in Libya, it is in fact a red herring and should not be pursued. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is correct in suggesting that it introduces more problems than it solves in the immediate future. Imposing a no-fly zone at the request of what is now a Cyrenaica-based leadership or, even worse, getting weapons into the hands of rebels in that area, as some have blithely suggested, is a recipe for long-term disaster in light of the country’s fractured governance. Further military involvement in Libya would only reinforce the power of Qaddafi’s narrative of resistance to foreign occupation and Western duplicity — a narrative that many Libyans, quite contrary to what we may believe in the West, actually subscribe to. Obama is correct in resisting any direct U.S. involvement.

Take it slow. Because of Qaddafi’s evisceration of all political and social institutions, Libya will be severely lacking in even the basic understandings of how modern, representative governments work. The natural impulse of Westerners will be to insist on elections, as soon as possible. But elections without the prerequisites for a modern democracy in place — and here Libya will be found profoundly deficient — are hollow and counterproductive. Thoughtful Libyans are unlikely to be impressed with calls for early elections in a country where even the most basic checks and balances to make a democratic system work are not yet in place. Better to take things slowly. And with its vast experience of political capacity-building through a large number of government agencies, the United States is in a unique position to help create a sustainable network of civil, social, and political institutions that could help build the foundations of a democratic Libya.

Human rights matter… The United States should obviously support all humanitarian efforts the international community organizes on behalf of Libya, as well as all multilateral efforts to hold the Qaddafi regime responsible and accountable for the crimes it has committed against its own citizens. The military airlift of refugees currently underway is a positive sign, as is the International Criminal Court’s involvement. But the United States could go further and advocate the early establishment of a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the country once Qaddafi is gone. Libya is a tribal society. Such societies have long memories, and 40 years of Qaddafi’s rule made some collaboration with the regime virtually unavoidable for almost everyone. In thinking about helping to rebuild Libya, any actor who can help prevent the settling of scores will be seen as a valuable interlocutor.

… and so does oil. The economic reconstruction of Libya’s economy after four decades of inefficient state management and cronyism could provide a final focus for U.S. expertise. Almost 95 percent of Libya’s current income is derived from oil (and natural gas). Oil, and how the proceeds from oil sales are distributed, will be crucial for all sides, no matter how Libya is rebuilt. This will require a number of creative solutions to keep the country unified. The United States could be helpful in mediating and suggesting a number of ways out of the conundrums Libya will encounter in this regard — perhaps by suggesting a federal formula that provides incentives for the different provinces and tribes to work together, rather than go their own way.

For the first time since independence in 1951, Libyans at the end of their war of attrition will be asked to create a modern state, one that provides checks and balances between its citizens and those who rule over them. Four decades of fragmentation of the country’s society and the competition for the country’s massive oil reserves will make a consensus around such a creation exceedingly difficult. The United States can help immensely by providing wise council and expertise. Anything beyond that will eventually be seen by most Libyans as self-interested, no matter how selfless or in the greater interest of Libyans the United States may attempt to portray it.

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