As Powers Disagree, the Libya Question Deepens


Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has called for the end of hostilities in Libya in favor of a peaceful solution to the conflict, with the main motive of supplying humanitarian aid. NATO has already been in Libya for several months, locked in a stalemate with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. Its main involvement is air support for the rag-tag collection of rebels occupying eastern Libya and holding pockets of resistance in the West. More often than not, NATO is embarrassed by repeatedly striking friendly forces and civilian targets by accident.

France and Germany recognize the transitional authority of the rebels as Libya’s legitimate government. The U.S. is hesitant to do so, but Washington is still supporting the campaign against Gaddafi. Russia and China have denounced NATO’s involvement in Libya, but neither has expressed support for either side; they only oppose the intervention in Libya’s internal affairs.

Had Libya been left alone, Gaddafi would have likely regained control of the country. For all the controversies surrounding him as a leader, he has been able to successfully slalom between great power interests for four decades. In the tumultuous political environment of North Africa, Libya has been, on average, more prosperous and peaceful under his leadership. Why the shakeup now?

The fighting will eventually end, but what is going to happen to Libya afterward? The West has historically not been adept at projecting for the long term; recent examples include the invasion of Iraq and the recent admission that Washington is negotiating with the Taliban to determine Afghanistan’s future, when the original intent was to eradicate the movement. France rushed to depose Gaddafi, which may have been an attempt by President Nicolas Sarkozy to rescue his sinking ratings.

One postwar scenario involves dividing Libya in two, with one state headed by Tripoli and the other by Benghazi. The eastern half would be pro-West oriented, while the western half might be left under international isolation, since Gaddafi’s influence will probably not disappear there. Yet, there is another, more possible outcome.

I think Libya’s territorial integrity will not be compromised. It would be more costly to destroy the existing state infrastructure and build two new ones from scratch; the West does not have the political will or resources for another decade-long investment in another war-torn state. This is the primary reason the campaign is not as destructive as it could be. When the mandate for active engagement expires in September, Gaddafi will not be gone. With China and Russia likely to veto another extension of military involvement, the solution will be diplomatic.

It would be counter-productive for the internal struggle to continue after NATO’s presence ends. Despite recognition, the West’s material support for the rebels is lukewarm, beyond the daily air strikes. This suggests that Gaddafi may gain the upper hand in combat, as he sits on resources that enable him to wage war more effectively. However, neither side has an interest in continuing the killing sprees. Much like the U.S.-Taliban talks, the two sides will be able to reach a consensus, and potentially call elections for a nascent political pluralism in Libya.

What about the outcome? There will be no Arab Spring in Libya. Gaddafi will remove himself from the public limelight, but his family, the second echelon of his government and security force, will continue the autocratic culture of government. The rebels, beyond limited experience in being rebels, know even less about democracy. They will likely form the splinter parties that provide a façade democracy and an opposition for color, the protocol of “democratic” government more than anything else.

The biggest loser will be the West; despite the thousands of sorties, the gain in influence will be minimal.

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