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Why the U.S. probably won’t recognize Libya’s rebel government

No offense to Vanuatu or Abkhazia, but there’s a slightly more high-profile international-recognition dispute taking place right now, as Paul Richter reports: Ali Aujali, the soft-spoken representative from the rebels’ ruling body, the Transitional National Council, has spent three months in a forlorn effort to persuade the Obama administration to extend diplomatic recognition to his ...

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

No offense to Vanuatu or Abkhazia, but there’s a slightly more high-profile international-recognition dispute taking place right now, as Paul Richter reports:

Ali Aujali, the soft-spoken representative from the rebels’ ruling body, the Transitional National Council, has spent three months in a forlorn effort to persuade the Obama administration to extend diplomatic recognition to his group, a move that would bolster its international standing and could provide access to $34 billion in frozen Libyan assets.

But the White House has shut the door on formal recognition, imperiling the interim council’s ability to pay for its rebellion as well as Aujali’s capacity to keep the lights on in his lonely mission.

The military stalemate in Libya has turned Aujali, who served as Kadafi’s envoy in Washington before switching sides in February, into a Rodney Dangerfield of diplomats. He waters his front lawn, worries about storm damage to his roof, and takes walks with his grandchildren when he’s not escorting visiting rebels to inconclusive meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill.

His hopes have been raised time and again, only to be dashed. When he asks American officials why the Obama administration won’t recognize the opposition council even though the U.S. insists Kadafi step down and is supporting the NATO alliance that is bombing Kadafi’s military, diplomacy kicks in.

"I am only told, ‘It is a legal issue,’ and no more," sighs Aujali, a compact man in his early 60s with a shaved head and a close-cropped goatee. "We are desperate."

Administration officials tell Richter that the council "may not control enough territory or population to qualify as sovereign," but more to the point, transfering recognition from an established government, no matter how despotic, to a rebel group goes against long-standing U.S. policy. I looked into this a bit for an Explainer piece following last year’s uprising in Kyrgyzstan:

 When the United States was founded, it established diplomatic relations with various foreign governments in an ad hoc fashion, and even today there are few codified rules concerning recognition. Generally speaking, it is the policy of the U.S. government to recognize states, not governments, and to deal (or choose not to deal) with whoever happens to be in charge. This hasn’t always been the case: Woodrow Wilson used nonrecognition, with some success, to delegitimize nondemocratic foreign leaders like Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta, and for years, the United States recognized the anti-communist government in Taipei as the legitimate government of China. In recent decades, however, U.S. leaders have mostly tried to avoid getting involved in recognition battles in which they would be lobbied by competing factions seeking legitimacy.

Of course, this can become more complicated when there are multiple leaders or groups within a country claiming to be the legitimate government. The United States typically avoids taking the lead in recognition, waiting for the domestic politics to play out or for regional bodies like the Organization of American States to resolve the crisis before deciding whether to confer legitimacy on the new government. In the case of Honduras, for instance, the United States followed the lead of other Latin American countries in deeming Zelaya’s ouster illegitimate.

Italy, France, Qatar, and Kuwait have recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya, and some other countries have taken intermediate steps in that direction. Sen. John McCain has called for the Obama administration to add the U.S. to that list. But it’s safe to say that we’re still a long way off from an international, or even regional, consensus recognizing the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya, so the U.S. is unlikely to stick its neck out at this stage.

This issue may also come up in Yemen if the current leadership vacuum continues.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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