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In Paris, US seeks to secure its spot among Libya's new best friends

When it comes time to rebuild Libya after Qaddafi, the US will be looking for its share of contracts. Despite its backseat role in the NATO campaign, the US can expect a good spot on the friends list.

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The US will have several advantages going for it as Libya looks for reconstruction partners, White says. The US role in the NATO campaign will be just one factor.

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“Even though the US might have looked better had it taken a lead role, it proved significant support that kept NATO in the air and it provided crucial reconnaissance, and [the Libyans] are aware of that,” he says.

Other factors that White says will favor the US:

• The role US media played in taking the rebels’ struggle to the world.

• The fact that the US – unlike Britain, Italy, and to some degree France – does not have “colonial baggage’ in Libya.

• An Arab impression that “only the Americans know how to find oil” will “make them desirable for technical assistance.”

The jostling for position on the friends list does not mean that foreign powers’ interests in Libya are wholly opportunistic, experts say.

A politically stable Libya is particularly important to Europe. A failed Libya could send a wave of refugees northward with significant repercussions across Europe, says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Some European officials have predicted that chaos in Libya would send hundreds of thousands of refugees to European shores, Ms. Conley notes in a CSIS website posting. That in turn could bolster the fortunes of far-right, anti-immigrant political forces, she adds.

It’s also important to Western powers that the rebel forces they backed end up promoting the values they espouse.

“We will be watching and supporting Libya’s leaders as they keep their stated commitments to conduct an inclusive transition, act under the rule of law, and protect vulnerable populations – and that should include enshrining the rights of women as well as men in their constitution,” Secretary Clinton said in addressing the “friends of Libya” conference Thursday. “Honoring these principles offers Libya its best chance at a stable, successful future.”

Clinton also called on Libya’s new leaders to “stand against violent extremism and work with us to ensure that weapons from Qaddafi’s stockpiles do not threaten Libya’s neighbors and the world.” One reason the US trailed some other countries, including France and Britain, in recognizing the TNC was its concerns about the presence of radical Islamists in the council’s ranks.

Even more than the Obama administration, the governments of France and Britain are keen to show their constituents that the Libyan intervention was worthwhile and successful, says the MEI’s White.

That’s one reason humanitarian assistance in the immediate aftermath of conflict will be so important. If the Libyan population is left to languish, he says, it could lead to sustained instability and even an open door to Islamist extremism.

And that in turn could turn off an already reluctant European population to any future overseas interventions, White says.

“They [European governments in particular] are very concerned to make this good,” he says. “They want to be able to present this as a model of liberation and reform.”

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