Obama, Romney missing the point on Libya

October 22, 2012

President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney in Monday’s foreign policy debate are again likely to examine the administration’s handling of an Islamic militia’s murderous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and its significance for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, they may again miss the crucial question raised by the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans: Why is Libya at the mercy of hundreds of lawless militias and without a functioning state one year after U.S. and NATO support enabled rebels to overthrow dictator Muammar Ghadaffi?

What both presidential nominees fail to see is that the United States and its allies went beyond their (and the U.N.’s) declared objective of protecting civilian areas under threat of attack to promoting rapid and violent regime change. This left the country in the hands of a fledgling rebel political leadership, which has tenuous control over the country’s militia groups.

The Obama administration, in devising its Libya policies, appears to have paid little attention to the country’s history or political realities. Libya has weak national institutions, with no record of democratic elections or political participation. It has strong regional and tribal tensions, a historical basis for an Islamic movement and is awash in weapons. In this context, the political and security situation in Libya today was predictable.

The Republicans, meanwhile, posed no effective challenge to administration policy during the congressional debates in June 2011. They generally accepted at face value Obama’s assurance to the nation that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake” – though it was obvious that this had, in fact, occurred.

House Republicans instead expressed concerns about non-strategic “humanitarian” intervention, fiscal consequences and evasion of legal requirements for congressional participation. They did nothing  to limit funding for the president’s policy. Nor did Romney’s fragmentary statements during that period offer any coherent alternative.

Yet there was a reasonable alternative policy, versions of which were put forward by the African Union (spearheaded by South Africa) and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Under these proposals, the parties to the conflict would have agreed to a cease-fire monitored by a U.N. peacekeeping force; political negotiations to establish democratic institutions; and a transitional government including representatives of the former rebels and those on the government side without blood on their hands.

The linchpin of this package would have been a firm understanding that Ghadaffi, after assuring the acquiescence of his army and supporters, would leave power during the transition.

In fact, according to research I have been conducting, Ghadaffi, under pressure from NATO, the African Union and Russia, had made a number of significant concessions by June 2011. His government had agreed to talk to the rebel Transitional National Council and had accepted a withdrawal of his military forces from occupied towns if the TNC would do the same. In addition, the dictator personally assured the African Union that he would not participate in (and therefore not obstruct) negotiations for a democratic transition.

Moreover, from mid-June to mid-July, Ghadaffi sent private emissaries to the United States and certain European governments. They stated he was willing to leave power in the context of a peace agreement and a transitional government. Rather than moving to test these waters, NATO leaders instead undermined African mediators, as South African President Jacob Zuma later complained.

Had the U.S. and its allies strongly backed the African Union mediation (as Russia interestingly did), we might be looking at a Libya today where security was assured by a continuing U.N. peacekeeping force and a new national army that was making progress in integrating former rebel and government forces. There might also have been a better integrated, more inclusive transitional government – the product of extensive, internationally backed political negotiations rather than a sudden military victory.

Under these circumstances, there might well have been greater progress toward the key goals of establishing state institutions and democracy.

Even if Ghadaffi had tried to use negotiations as a way to hold on to power in the less than half of Libya he still had some support, he would still have faced the tough economic sanctions that Obama had insisted would eventually push him out of office. Meanwhile, the rebel council would have had more time and opportunity to develop into a strong, coherent political movement that could control its military affiliates.

If Obama and Romney do choose to discuss the underlying reasons why four Americans died in Benghazi, they might also examine other unfavorable consequences of U.S. policy toward Libya across three continents. Washington’s actions helped produce chaos that has permitted arms and foreign mercenaries to escape Libya and fuel extremist violence across North Africa, the Egyptian Sinai and Mali. Consider, the northern half of Mali is now controlled by radical Islamists.

The Libyan intervention also reinforced Russia’s suspicion of Western motives. Moscow warily abstained on the U.N. Security Council vote to authorize force to protect civilians in Libya, but Russia has since vetoed U.N. resolutions addressing the far bloodier struggle in Syria, insisting that they could be perverted to force violent regime change – as was done in Libya.

In addition, the NATO operation has probably made North Korea and Iran even more reluctant to abandon their existing or potential nuclear weapons programs, something Libya did under Ghadaffi. Lest they too be threatened by “regime change.”

PHOTO: Fighters prepare for clashes between rival militias in Sabha. Anis Mili / Reuters


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