Political strategy in Libya: US and others must recognize a rebel government

The US, Western, and Arab allies must recognize and support Libya's newly formed provisional, rebel government: the National Council. Doing so is key to a plan that will help avoid the most-feared scenarios, remove Qaddafi, and enable a more stable transition to democracy in Libya.

President Obama wants to see Muammar Qaddafi gone and Libya stabilized, which raises an obvious question: Do the United States and its allies have a political plan or endgame to match a military strategy?

Mr. Qaddafi may or may not fall in the coming weeks. Without a political plan, we could face a prolonged war in Libya. Or, if Qaddafi is removed, Libya could turn into a chaotic, Somalia-like country. It’s also hard to rule out an ongoing civil war among competing tribes, militias, democratic voices, and military elements. Nor is it impossible that radical jihadists could gain some influence or that a new secular autocrat could arise to replace Qaddafi in a “Back to the Future” sequel. These are bad outcomes for Libya, the Middle East, and the West.

Prolonged instability in Libya could also drive oil prices higher, especially if a rebounding global economy leads to higher oil demand and greater pressure on oil supply. High oil prices always hurt the poor more than the rich around the world.

Here’s a political plan that will help avoid these scenarios, remove Qaddafi, and enable a more stable Libya.

Not nation-building, but supporting

Nation-building in Libya is not the job of America and its allies, but they should join France in recognizing Libya’s provisional, rebel government – now called the Libyan National Council. Established on March 5 in Benghazi, it is composed of 31 members who represent different Libyan regions and cities. The council has already appointed officers for foreign affairs, military affairs, and even to govern Libya’s oil sector.

It’s true that we cannot predict what the council will do if it comes to power, but that’s hard to do in any case. Reflecting council views, former Libyan diplomat Mansour Saif al Nasr, the council’s European Union spokesman, stated recently that once Libyan territory is “liberated,” a constituent assembly will be formed to draft a constitution, establishing a democratic, secular state.

The council should re-affirm this goal formally as a precondition for greater recognition. Its announced members are experienced, even if not exactly Thomas Jeffersons. For example, the council’s leader is Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a judge from the eastern town of al-Bayida who resigned as justice minister after the uprising began. Another member is Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s former deputy UN ambassador, who broke with Qaddafi last month and shifted to represent the rebels.

Help National Council take key steps

Whether or not the United States and its Western and Arab allies recognize the National Council, they should either publicly or privately encourage it to take the following steps:

• Assure pro-Qaddafi Libyans in the military, tribes, and citizenry that they will be reintegrated fairly into a new Libya. If they know this, they will be more likely to support Qaddafi’s ouster and to enable a more stable post-Qaddafi Libya. If they think they will be attacked and alienated, they will be more likely to fight along side Qaddafi and, if he falls, to undermine a post-Qaddafi government.

In Iraq, Washington made the mistake of alienating Saddam Hussein’s military rank and file, after it overthrew the dictator. These leaders then became the vanguard of the insurgency in Iraq. Libya is not Iraq, but such dynamics could still occur there.

• Identify strong military leaders who can provide order in Libya – as the military in Egypt is doing today – while democratic institutions are slowly built. Some liberal-minded, defecting generals could fit this bill. Without order, democracy will face difficulties.

• Delegitimize Libyan radical jihadists or autocratic elements. The council must do this by re-stating in the global media its commitment to a secular, democratic Libya. This will help it earn global support.

• Try to bridge the divide among the tribes in western Libya that have supported Qaddafi and those of the east. Historically, they have been at odds, and if they are not bridged, Libya could end up in civil war or as a country with two capitals: Tripoli and Benghazi.

• Tap Iraq’s expertise. The Iraqis have gone through the process of setting up democracy in the heart of the Arab world, despite competing ethnic and religious factions.

From experience, Iraqis know the grueling nature of a new democracy and the persistence required to make it work: After a nearly 8-month post-election stalemate, Iraqi leaders finally hashed out a coalition agreement. The Iraqis, working with the western allies, can provide Arab legitimacy in the effort to bolster the National Council.

Groundwork for stable Libya, Middle East

All these steps may also put some additional pressure on Qaddafi to quit Libya even before he is hopefully deposed. Supporting the Libyan National Council will also help the US set up positive relations with what may well be Libya’s next government.

Historically, military measures don’t often produce good outcomes without a political plan. Such a plan can help remove Qaddafi and lay the groundwork for a more stable Libya, North Africa, and Middle East.

Steve Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University and is the author of “Crude Awakenings,” “The Absence of Grand Strategy,” and the recently released “Explaining Foreign Policy.”

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