More Evidence that Libya is Screwed

Is there a scenario in which Libya is not screwed?

Last week the United States inexplicably recognized the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) as the legitimate governing body of Libya. Unfortunately, the decision to recognize the TNC has severely limited the ability of the United States to manage a conflict that looks as though it may never end. The decision to recognize the TNC has eliminated a very useful tool that could have been wielded by the White House to push for a negotiated end to the war. Let’s just put this down as yet another example of how the west has screwed Libya recently.

A key fact in Libya – and in the odd American decision to recognize the TNC – is that the TNC is not particularly legitimate within Libya. Certainly, the TNC is distrusted among Qaddafi supporters, but even among the anti-Qaddafi crowd, the Benghazi-based TNC can hardly be considered a government of the people:

But the problem is that it is only barely in control of the war; it clearly does not represent the full expanse of Libyan opposition; and it is very unlikely to remain a major political body after the war.

Whoops. Probably should have thought that one through a bit better. Fortunately, the good news only gets better:

Beyond this, there is the larger question of just how much of anti-Gadhafi Libya the NTC actually represents. That became clear this week during an interview with Mohammed Musa El-Maghrabi, who represents the rebel fighters of the war-torn city of Brega in the NTC.

“While obviously we feel that the NTC is better than Gadhafi rule, they are only representing Benghazi – we do not have any sense of them representing Brega,” Mr. El-Maghraba said before meeting NTC leaders Thursday. “To us, it looks like the NTC is a foreign government, full of nepotism and corruption. This worries us. Do we want to have a Gadhafi dictatorship replaced with a Benghazi dictatorship?”

Brega may be an unusual case. Nevertheless, Mr. El-Maghrabi’s outburst does raise an eyebrow: If the NTC is unable to create a sense of legitimacy among the people of Brega, two hours down the road, then how on earth will it ever win the respect of Tripoli?

This is a question that has begun to worry foreign supporters, even as they give diplomatic backing to the NTC.

“They are much more adept at building legitimacy among European governments than they are at building legitimacy among the Libyan people,” said a European diplomat who works with the council.

So, mistake number one was giving official recognition to an entity that is seen as a foreign government to many Libyans and is apparently incapable of controlling fighters bent on revenge violence. (Scratch that, mistake number one was perhaps intervening in Libya in the first place). Yet the White House recognized the TNC because it had run out of options. Rebels in the west of the country have been able to take a few Qaddafi villages (and loot them) and in the east the rebels have taken over the oil town of Brega; however, the TNC is no closer to mounting any sort of siege on Tripoli and the Qaddafi regime does not look like it is about to fall.

Recognition of the TNC legally allows the United States to release billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets to the rebel organization, a move that could give a boost to the rebel movement. Unfortunately, the chance that a couple billion allows the rebels to defeat Qaddafi is just as good as the chance that American recognition facilitates the more-permanent division of the country. As Karim Mezran writes, the continuing stalemate may push the TNC to spend more money rehabilitating the liberated areas of the country instead of pushing towards Tripoli and the rest of Tripolitania:

Moreover one has to be wary that, the TNC may feel a duty to reward the people of the eastern provinces who have suffered much in the last month. In other words, while the situation on the ground remains stalled, the TNC may prefer to spend and invest resources in the reconstruction and strengthening of the liberated zones thus decreasing the war efforts to liberate Tripolitania. The unintended consequence of this policy would hasten the breakup of Libya. This would be the worst possible outcome of recognizing the TNC.

Let’s recap: gambling that the TNC could break the stalemate in Libya, the United States breaks with tradition and policy and recognizes the TNC even though the TNC is not recognized by many Libyans. This recognition frees up money for the TNC, but could also bring about the division of the country. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the move will allow the rebels to defeat Qaddafi.

As Libya seems defiantly stuck, many are beginning to wonder if Qaddafi would accept a negotiated end to the conflict that guarantees amnesty for Qaddafi’s regime in exchange for stepping down. The thing, though, is that Qaddadi, his son and the country’s military intelligence chief have all been indicted by the ICC; a western supported internal exile, including amnesty is tantamount to undermining international law. Great! But there is more!

Should Qaddafi accept internal exile plus amnesty, there is no guarantee that the TNC would decide that peace is more important than justice. In the past, the TNC has been divided over the question of a negotiated peace deal:

Indeed, even the NTC seems barely united internally. That was evident recently when Mahmoud Jibril, the council’s executive chief, announced that the NTC would welcome a peace settlement with Col. Gadhafi; he was then contradicted by NTC spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, who said that Col. Gadhafi would only be defeated militarily, and successfully pressed him to strike those remarks from the record. Several such schisms have occurred.

By prematurely recognizing the TNC, the United States has effectively removed a possible pressure point that could have been used to push the TNC closer to the negotiating table. And wait! Say Qaddafi and the TNC agree to a peace deal, is there any guarantee that Qaddafi, in the midst of the chaotic power vacuum left after his resignation, actually adheres to the deal?

Luckily, Gaddafi would never dream of using his exile to organize an insurgency against his successors. Even luckier, he would never find active or passive receptivity to such an insurgency when post-Gaddafi governance inevitably falters and the rebel front, held together only by opposition to Gaddafi, fractures. Best yet, it will find no attractive rallying cry for its cause in the presence of NATO peacekeepers. It’s a really great thing we got involved in this war, since nothing can go wrong.

Basically, Libya’s war has reached a stalemate, pushing many outsiders to resign themselves to a potentially ineffective negotiated settlement that may only have partial support from Libyans. After a negotiated settlement, the country – left without national political institutions or a organized and united government – will probably fall into chaos as groups compete to fill the enormous power vacuum as corruption soars and Qaddafi supporters are targeted in revenge violence that perhaps aids an internally exiled Qaddafi create an insurgency to fight the western backed TNC, an organization that has the support of only the eastern part of Libya. The alternative, of course, is a continuation of the current stalemate as the country slowly splits into two separate entities.

Like I said, whoops…

Photo from The Tribune

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