How do we know what's going on?

IN our present confrontation with Libya, it is obviously important that we know what is going on in that country. Our policies seem to be based on assumptions that Colonel Qaddafi is in trouble, that his regular military is near revolt, and that a push from the outside may well topple him. How do we know? This is a time when we should be obtaining the most accurate information possible on the mood within Libya, the attitude of the population toward Qaddafi, and the longer-term Libyan reaction to the United States attack.

In the highly controlled conditions within Libya and in the absence of a US embassy, our government must rely on other sources, each of which has limitations.

US newspapers and television networks have correspondents in Libya. Presumably we have intelligence agents and are in touch with friendly foreign diplomats, including the Belgians, who officially protect US interests, as well as businessmen and Libyan exiles.

US journalists do a good job at a time like this. Those stationed in or near Libya have made frequent trips, and the ones experienced in sensing a foreign political system can probably get a feel of the internal situation. Television tends to be crisis oriented, episodic, and immediate, giving impressions more than analysis. Print journalists, of whatever media, tend to write for the present and for the reader. Apart from what they write, journalists may well be inhibited in going out of their way to convey their thoughts to US officials. While in Libya even the best ones are severely circumscribed in their movements.

There are limits, also, on what foreign embassies, including those that officially protect our interests, can do to help our assessment. With interests of their own, they may not be attuned to the type of information needed by the United States. Given their own sensitive positions in a country such as Libya and noticing how leaky the US government is, they may also be reluctant to share sensitive assessments with us.

Businessmen have their own agenda. In a country where the foreigner stands out, and is vulnerable to being expelled, businessmen are unlikely to seek the kind of broad nonbusiness contacts and to ask the kind of questions necessary for an accurate political assessment.

There are prominent Libyan exiles abroad who, almost certainly, maintain links with people inside the country. They would seem logical sources, but many of them are out of touch with the realities in their own country. Also, many of these will have a keen interest in an active US role against Qaddafi. They want to see him overthrown and, if they sense a willingness on the part of the US to listen, they will provide Americans with the kind of encouraging assessment that may lead to action. Their assessment may not, necessarily, be correct.

An embassy, even though its coverage may be far from perfect in a closed society, can provide valuable continuing information and analysis. Diplomats tend to stay for a longer period than journalists, they have an easier time seeing officials, and they are more aware of what is needed in the decisionmaking process. Even they may not be able to give a government a completely accurate picture in a country such as Libya. Libyans may be reluctant to talk with them (this was true even under King Idris), and their circumscribed life in the capital may limit their perspective. And the idea of returning an American embassy to Tripoli today is impossible.

Even in the best of times in a country with a different culture, there is a curtain of comprehension that few foreigners can penetrate. Even if they succeed, explaining it to political leaders at home is equally challenging.

Political leaders in a democracy, especially in times of pressure and tension, gain a vested interest in the pursuit of policies. Diplomats who may challenge the perceptions and assumptions of the policymaker may be discarded as uncredible advisers. The US diplomat would not be welcome in the higher circles of Washington today who would suggest the raid was a mistake.

Frequently in our history, when the US has been in conflict with a foreign power, particularly one of a very different culture, we have assumed that the people of that country would react as we would under similar circumstances. Our tendency has been to listen to those who said what we wanted to hear. We have been wrong.

Today the US action against Libya appears based on perceptions and assumptions of Qaddafi's weakness and the possibility of his overthrow. Even in the best of circumstances, these assumptions might be questionable. When the US government is as limited as it is today in its access to Libyan society and in its communication with Libya, it is dangerous to proceed as if we truly knew what was going on in this closed desert country.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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