By Roger Kaplan on 3.21.11 @ 6:09AM
Now that we’re in, how do we prevent a long-term guerrilla war in Libya?
“Arms and the man I sing…” The Latin races are again on their way to North Africa, though it appears the French rather than the Italians will be on the scene searching for their Didos, and it will likely be some miles east of Carthage. Although “Operation Odyssey Dawn” suggests a long haul, a French landing in Libya is far from certain: air power alone might subdue the pirate of Tripoli, if no Juno comes to his aid. With American cruise missiles launched from destroyers and submarines flattening Gaddafi’s air defenses, French air wings can bomb the Libyan air force into paper clips, having warmed up over the weekend on tanks at the approaches of Benghazi, eastern seat of Cyrenea and the anti-Gaddafi National Transition Council.
Notwithstanding UN resolutions and authorizations and President Obama’s insistence that there would be no problem but for the way the Gaddafi regime treats its own people, it is not clear exactly what the war aims are here; but this could be to our advantage. It may be one of the rare cases when improvisation reduces the risks of getting pulled into a quagmire with no end in sight.
Now the whole matter could be over and done with settled if a coalition warplane blows the Guide to smithereens or if some of his loyal troops decide their survival depends on betraying him. But whether or not Gaddafi survives, is it certain that the Cyreneans and the Tripolitanians are better off staying together? Are we better off if they do?
If the coalition stays willing, and if Gaddafi grasps the out that was offered and as far as anyone knows has not been rescinded, there could be an opportunity to make everybody happy, even while feeling they have not got everything they want. This is the definition of a successful legal settlement and should be especially pleasing to our president. The thing to do is: destroy as much of Gaddafi’s military potential as possible, and cut a deal allowing him — or, if he is killed, whoever takes his place in Tripoli — to keep his beach front place in Tripoli. The London properties ought to be turned over to the new Cyrenea government for their embassy and overseas cultural center. They could hire professors and offer degree programs in Arab and African Studies, using unfrozen Libya Investment Authority funds (aka Gaddafi, Inc.) that had it not been for the Benghazi revolt would have gone into the pockets of London School of Economics bigs who tutored Moammar Gaddafi’s son Saif as he worked toward his Ph.D.
With both the Arab League and the African Union evidently opposed to any military action not directly related to protecting civilians, the several parties in this conflict will be happy to pretend a truce along these lines saves face all around.
If Gaddafi survives and his men do not betray him and we do not offer him a deal, he may fight on, as he says he means to. We do not know how well Gaddafi’s troops will fight without air power and mobile artillery; indeed, we do not know whether they will fight at all. On the other hand, it would be foolish to assume that because we call him a ruthless tyrant, his tribal and other supporters feel the same way about him, or do not find the alternatives worse. Do we want a long guerrilla war in Libya?
Gaddafi is no Abd el-Khader, the Algerian patriot who outgeneraled the vastly superior French for over a decade in the mid-19th century, and he is no Idris, the Libyan leader who took the anti-Ottoman banner of his 19th century uncle Mohamed el-Mahdi and carried it against the Italians in the 1930s and '40s, ultimately with considerable help from Anglo-American-Free French armies who were in the neighborhood fighting Nazis.
But how much do we know about who will continue the fight after the formal defeat of the Gaddafi regime and its replacement by — by what exactly? Southern Libya is an enormous expanse of desert. Neither we nor regimes in North Africa with which we have been cooperating militarily for over 10 years have managed to rout Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, hidden away in the Sahara from which it launches raids where and when it chooses. Do we know if the National Transition Council will be able to police its southern desert? In terms of minimizing risks to our own men and our allies’, and in terms of a better political outcome, it might be wise to let Gaddahfiah tribals, if they stand by their leader or even if they do not, keep some territory in the west, tell the Transition Council to take care of business in the east, put the oil fields (which are in the east) under trusteeship, beneficiaries to be determined later, and send the Arab League the bill for the whole operation.
This might not be acceptable to the spokesmen for the National Transition Council, who have vowed to maintain the country’s unity, and it is difficult to see the Arab League and the African Union endorsing a division of the country. The African Union already has expressed its disapproval of Operation Odyssey Dawn. However, its members have proven ineffectual in finding a solution to the Ivoirian crisis, sliding into civil war while the world’s attention is elsewhere, and their ideas about the Libyan crisis may not receive all the attention they surely merit. But if all options are on the table, why not add geography change to regime change in thinking this situation through?
MEANWHILE, WE ARE NOT THERE YET, and having the luxury to think unconventional thoughts presupposes an early and happy conclusion to the Libyan war. What do we do if civil war breaks out in earnest between the country’s different regions? Would it not make sense to disarm them all, tell them to get their own houses in order, and call us when they want some advice on setting up a federal system?
We have learned that nation-building is easier said than done, and since the Arab League and the media in the countries of the region are expressing all manners of mistrust of the coalition’s military strategy as well as its ultimate intentions (“neo-colonialism,” “oil,” etc.), we could at least suggest to the newly liberated Libyans and their neighbors that they ought not to prejudge our intentions. They are welcome to take over. And in fact this would please France and the U.S., whose war aims have been defined as strictly humanitarian.
Both Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy so far have played winning hands in Libya. Criticized for indecision and risk-aversion, President Obama’s overarching goals are to stay within the bounds of international legality and to avoid anything that appears to be a clash of civilizations. He does not want American boots on any more Arab ground, and to do this he feels he must chart a subtle diplomatic course between despotic but superficially strong regimes (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt in the early stages of the anti-Mubarak revolt) and the young people, assuming they are preponderantly young, who have been out demonstrating, and in some cases fighting and dying, for what they call democracy and change (if our translators and interpreters are to be believed), or maybe for bread and jobs, no value judgment intended. (Desideratum: better Arab-speakers and Arab-mind readers in the U.S. government and the U.S. media.)
Obama believes the West can get along with the Islamic world; for him, getting on the right side of history means pleasing both the tyrannical regimes of that world and the youthful reformers in such countries as Egypt and Tunisia and now Libya, though it is still by no means certain that the youthful reformers are not in fact Muslim fundamentalists or politically excluded tribals of varying age groups.
Supporters of the Bush freedom agenda doctrine believe that aggressive American military and political policies will bring about decisive changes in the political cultures of the region. However, no one, including Iraqis and Afghans who have been experiencing the freedom agenda for several years, had a word to say about the murderous assaults in recent days on Israeli civilians by terrorists using firearms and rockets.
Obama’s goals are successfully met by the attitude, call it policy if you will, adopted toward the Libyan crisis. By letting the Anglo-French take the lead in preparing for political-military action, by waiting for the Arab League to panic and demand the West come to the rescue, and by getting the UN Security Council to pass an unusually strong resolution (“all necessary means”) if not the strongest possible (it nixes occupation on the ground), the Obama administration pleases a wide breadth of players in this brutal game, possibly even Gaddafi, if he opts for the out that may still be on the table for him.
SARKOZY’S GOALS ARE DIFFERENT, but can in the short term dovetail with Obama’s. In contrast to the American president, Sarkozy is a clash-of-civilizations man, and as France has a large Muslim population, he is aware that the clash is taking place in Europe as well as between Europe and the Middle East. His goal is to help restore stability in the Arabo-Islamic world as fast as possible, particularly in the North African countries, which have been the source of most of the emigration toward France. He knows they must make reforms leading to job-creating economic growth, and stop sending their young people “on boats to Australia,” as the idiom has it. The proposed Mediterranean Union is one plan, ill-conceived according to some critics, that would concentrate regional minds on entrepreneurship instead of migration.
These goals, too, are met by the Libyan policy as it has taken shape. Sarkozy gives France a leadership role in Mediterranean affairs, and gets on the right side of history — which he knows is historically a dangerous place to be but necessary in the short term after the fiasco of responding to the Tunisian revolt with a female foreign minister offering riot police support — a gaffe that could only remind people that Marie-Antoinette was a French queen, albeit an Austrian princess.
At the same time, Sarkozy pleases conservative voters who can, according to their whims, see this as either an Arab-bashing policy or a way to slow immigration. There have been, according to reports from Libya’s eastern and western borders, at least a quarter million refugees in scarcely a fortnight of unrest (many are expatriate workers from other Arab countries, but they would just as soon go to Europe as home, as would Tunisians). He also pleases French Muslims, since they tend to take the side of the oppressed, real or imagined, whether unemployed Egyptian engineers or Palestinian killers. He outflanks the Socialist leader Martine Aubry, who just a few days ago was saying she was ashamed of “Europe” for abandoning a “martyred people” (not a word from her about the massacres of Jews in Israel or Copts in Egypt).
Neither Sarkozy nor Obama has any deep personal desire to be done with Gaddafi, so if he throws in the towel before his tents are bombed to shreds, they are likely to go along with whatever settlement emerges in the smoke-filled rooms of the Arab League in Cairo and the corridors of the UN, maybe even with some input from the National Transition Council, whose spokesmen, while using the English word “freedom” in talking to journalists, have had nothing to say about Palestinian baby-killers. Sarkozy knows what a wicked man Gaddafi is, but expects it and expects the same of whoever succeeds him. Obama seems to have some difficulty with the concept of wickedness in an ex-colonized country.
It would be both morally satisfying and politically useful to punish Gaddafi to the utmost, but if the threat of attack and the possibility of escape leads to a negotiated end to the Libyan revolt with no further bloodshed, it may well be worth it, especially if — a big if — the coalition of the willing make a shrewd deal for a post-Gaddafi Libya or perhaps the two new countries of Tripolitania and Cyrenea. It is a little farfetched, but maybe a couple battalions of ROK (South Korean) infantry (British or French troops would be accused of “neocolonialism”) could be assigned peace-keeping responsibilities in the third province, Fezza, in the desert south, with instructions to use their customary tact on anything suspicious, notably the al Qaeda terrorists whom Gaddafi claimed he was fighting.
SUCH AN ARRANGEMENT MIGHT BE WELCOMED by the North African political leadership, though they would not say so out loud at first. Lately the new Tunisian prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, visited Algiers and Rabat, collecting aid pledges (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also indicated the new democracy will be eligible for Millennium grants, a euphemism for foreign aid) and getting his Algerian and Moroccan counterparts on board for a renewed effort to put the long-dormant Maghreb Arab Union on the rails. Libya is a member too, so it should not be a problem getting memberships for the new states of Tripolitania and Cyrenea.
However, Algeria and Morocco remain at odds over the status of the Western Sahara, whose people were promised a free and fair referendum 20 years ago to decide their future. Caid Essebsi, who as foreign minister under Tunisia’s founding president Habib Bourguiba orchestrated international diplomatic condemnations of Israel for conducting punitive expeditions against PLO terrorists based in Tunis suburbs, reportedly reminded King Mohammed VI that international legality must be respected on the Western Sahara question.
The king recently announced plans to move in the direction of a constitutional rather than absolute monarchy, and to underscore his seriousness his police have been clubbing demonstrators for change and democracy in Rabat and Casablanca, arresting journalists, and so forth. The Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced that, with the lifting last month of the state of emergency that was in place since 1992, political reforms were on the way; he offered no specifics. The National Coordination for Change and Democracy was refused a permit to demonstrate in Algiers last week, as usual, but observers noted that there was a large and successful meeting of the National Alliance for Change, whose core organizers are Salafists (fundamentalists) but whose most popular figure is Ahmed Benbitour, who comes from a predominantly Berber region in Algeria’s south though himself hailing from a neighboring Arab tribe and who, while serving under Bouteflika as prime minister for six months in 1999-2000, earned a reputation as a technocratic reformer. In recent years he has argued that a complete revamping of the regime is needed to stamp out cronyism and corruption and get an economy going that is not entirely dependent on exports of hydrocarbons and natural gas. He calls the UMA a priority and shows little interest in the Mediterranean Union. This may be a way of saying that the peoples and countries of North Africa must put local issues before grand schemes.
In this he may find a kindred soul in the old lawyer and UMA proponent Caid Essebsi. About Libya neither man has said anything other than to express the wish that the Libyan people should know the blessings of peace as soon as possible. Caid Essebsi many years ago described Gaddafi as a bad case of rheumatism, that you put up with until it goes away. It seems a rather odd metaphor, but it gets better as you think about it, and he may have had more than Libya in mind.
Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.
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