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.

Evan Vucci/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Libyan Transitional National Council chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil (c.) and Libyan Transitional National Council Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, Thursday, Sept. 1, in Paris.

To the victors go the spoils, the old saying goes – and it appears likely that the case of Libya will uphold the rule.

Libya’s new transitional leaders (formerly known as rebels) used a Paris conference Thursday to outline to the international community their plans for a political transition, as well as to lay out their need for international assistance in stabilizing the country after six months of conflict.

Several attendees, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the United States, used the gathering of some 60 countries and international organizations to announce the release of billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets to the new leadership.

But the meeting was also an opportunity for countries to jostle for a spot on Libya’s interim rulers’ list of best friends – a list that is likely to be referenced in the months ahead as Libya gets back on its feet and puts out for bidding everything from ministry rebuilding and infrastructure repair to oil contracts and arms purchases.

Both Britain and France, who led the NATO military mission that helped topple Col. Muammar Qaddafi and who hosted Thursday’s conference, can expect high rankings on the friends list. So, too, can the US, despite its backseat role in the NATO campaign and an initial reluctance to recognize the Transitional National Council (TNC) as Libya’s new legitimate power.

A desire to be on the winning side – and to reap the benefits of doing so – goes a long way in explaining Russia’s decision to recognize the TNC on the eve of the Paris conference.

Until this week Russia had been reluctant to take any action that might suggest it condoned NATO’s involvement in the conflict, and it had also hoped to create a role for itself in Libya by maintaining its contacts with Mr. Qaddafi’s regime, some regional analysts say. But with a deposed and hunted Qaddafi now clearly the loser, the analysts add, the only option for a country like Russia that is looking to burnish its standing in the Middle East is to jump to the winners.

“Gee, what a surprise that was,” says Wayne White, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington. “The Russians were particularly loath to see the end of a regime they were so close with, so salvaging some kind of foothold in Libya was not part of their motivation for recognizing the council, it was their only motivation.”

That does not mean that Russia is the only country out there looking to preserve or augment its cut of the Libyan pie.

Mr. White, a former State Department Middle East expert, says the Qaddafi regime has been “utterly inept” at maintaining infrastructure, particularly in the oil sector – a fact he says is well known in the region and beyond.

“Libya is probably more dependent on foreign expertise than anyone in the region to keep its infrastructure in working condition. That is going to be even more true as Libya moves to bring its infrastructure back up,” he adds, “and people know it.”

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.

“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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