Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year-old regime is on the verge of collapse, following a six-month rebellion by the Transitional National Council (TNC), a limited response operation by NATO, and significant economic and diplomatic pressures on the Libyan government’s leadership. As Gaddafi’s regime continues to crumble, the international community’s involvement is altering the foundation for a new Libya, one based in the rule of law, democratic institutions, and respect for human rights.
As a post-Gaddafi era emerges, policy commentary — in the blogosphere, in public forums, and in the social media realm — is centered on Western powers’ and, more specifically, America’s responsibility for stabilization in post-conflict Libya. The question of moral responsibility is, to a certain degree, a moot point. Either you believe, as I do, that NATO’s extensive commitment to the Libyan opposition over the past six months underlies a moral imperative for a post-conflict role, or you do not. The strategic question remains superficially ambiguous.
The United States’ “national interest” in post-conflict stabilization is central to present policy discussions. Detractors of U.S. leadership in post-conflict Libya correctly observe that Libya remains a non-primary interest for U.S. strategic priorities. The United States, the argument goes, is stretched thin by commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa, and can hardly afford another burden of nation-building in post-Gaddafi Libya. Before, during, and after NATO’s civilian protection operation, the TNC’s credibility as a democratic actor remains in question. Empirical evidence suggests that violent movements remain, on the whole, much less likely to foster democratic institutions and the rule of law in the aftermath of conflict. A U.S. leadership role in post-conflict Libya is futile and, therefore, beyond the realm of our current strategic priorities.
This definition of U.S. national interest ignores Libya’s central role in ensuring stability throughout North and sub-Saharan Africa. For much of his tenure, for better or for worse, Gaddafi’s diplomatic, economic, and military influence stretched across the African continent. Throughout the course of Libya’s civil war, Gaddafi hired a full cadre of African mercenaries, motivated by the prospect of unfettered access to the Libyan dictator’s weapons cache. The six-month conflict created significant migration flows throughout North Africa and the Sahel region, as refugees moved across porous borders in Mali, Niger, Tunisia, and Egypt. The present instability in Libya could threaten key, if not primary, U.S. interests in the region, including counter-terrorism efforts and diplomatic partnerships.
The Libyan people, more than any other actor, won Libya’s civil war, and they bear primary responsibility for winning the peace. However, the foundations of Libya’s core institutions have been shattered by six months of civil war, not to mention four decades of authoritarian rule. As post-conflict reconstruction experts have noted, international assistance may be necessary for the success of the TNC’s efforts to establish a justice system, craft basic governance institutions, and ensure law and order.
After five months of diplomatic, military, and economic support for the TNC, the United States has developed significant policy leverage in relation to Libya’s new leadership. Accordingly, the Obama administration is well poised to advocate for civilian protection and rigorous post-conflict reconstruction in Libya. A “lead role,” however, does not require the United States to shoulder the full burden of post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization activities. The Libya intervention vindicated Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy, demonstrating the utility of multilateral engagement in international conflict resolution initiatives. Participation in the diplomatic, economic, and military pressure against Gaddafi’s regime depended on the varied leverage of the U.S. government, the EU, the Arab League, and select African states. The United States should mobilize a similar approach to the reconstruction phase; the facilitation of multilateral contributions to post-conflict development will enhance the effectiveness of international policy in post-conflict Libya.
The absence of primary strategic interest should not lead the Obama administration to shy away from carving out a U.S. role in post-conflict Libya. The challenge of civilian protection and security for the Libyan people should remain paramount in the U.S. approach to post-conflict Libya. In order to ensure these outcomes, the United States should play a leading role in facilitating multilateral engagement in stabilization and reconstruction.
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