America Must Be A Back Seat Driver

This is the week Tripoli fell, when the crowd roared approval and gunfire streaked into the air. This is the week a conflict that has stagnated over months, cost thousands of lives, separated families, and divided a nation is seemingly at its end.  

So, what is next for Libya? The obvious answer is a stabilization and reconstruction program, to rebuild a shattered nation and renew a country that will be the leading example of the Arab Spring’s lasting change. The U.S. should stay well away from taking any sort of leading role in the aftermath, because any failures in the resulting stabilization program could poison relations with Libya and diminish U.S. influence in the region.

The U.S. does have a strong basis for being involved in such operations. It has some of the best resources, most highly trained specialists, and distinguished history; after all, this is the nation that gave Europe the Marshall Plan. In many ways, it has the clout, influence, and the means needed to help Libya rebuild and restructure. Despite this, it should not be high profile in its involvement.

It is unfortunate that in the last two decades, all attempts by the U.S. at stabilization and nation-building have been blighted, as in Lebanon (1982-84), Somalia (1992-94), Iraq, and the ongoing Afghanistan War. Consequently, most of the Middle East views the U.S. as a destabilizing force, one that creates more problems than it solves. Libyan political leaders could easily blame the U.S. when seeking a scapegoat for the nation’s continued woes. 

Another key argument against direct U.S. involvement would be the abundance of oil in Libya. Thus, any U.S.-led effort would be stigmatized as an attempt to secure oil reserves. The U.S. can do without further conspiracy theories tarnishing its Middle Eastern reputation, which a successful NATO operation has significantly boosted. 

Equally, in a country rife with tribal division, one seemingly inconsequential gesture, word, or action may trigger enough resentment and anger to topple any positive work done, especially if such a trigger came directly from the U.S. Therefore, the U.S. must try to maintain as high a neutrality as possible, working with other partners to achieve a stable Libya but also ensuring its footprint on the country is kept to a bare minimum.

The U.S. should provide Libya with the tools and guidance necessary for stabilization but do so discreetly — preferably via the United Nations. By doing this, the U.S. will remove itself from a potentially chaotic post-Gaddafi political situation, avoiding unintentionally backing a leader that has less than democratic aspirations. 

Instead, the preferable solution would be for the U.S. to use other channels for the stabilization program, be it the UN or any NGO with enough neutrality to be able to function in a state with difficult players and factions. The U.S. must stay engaged with Libya, but provide all the necessary support behind the scenes, thereby allowing the Libyan people to direct their country, while benefitting from all the experience and guidance the U.S. has to offer.

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