Siding with McCain and Kerry on Libya, but for Different Reasons

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Karim Mezran

Director, American Studies Institute in Rome; Senior Fellow, Middle East Policy Council

In the past few weeks, Senators McCain and Kerry have emerged among the strongest supporters of the idea that the best way to support the freedom movement would be to arm and grant full legal and diplomatic recognition to the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC), while reinforcing Western military intervention. The senators’ support stems from their adherence to the official narrative of the Libyan revolt. This narrative sees the TNC of Benghazi as the natural outcome of popular peaceful demonstrations, which, only because of the violent reaction of Qadhafi’s forces, turned into an armed insurgency. However, looking at the events on the ground from another perspective might lead to a different conclusion. It might not be advisable to give the TNC (especially as is composed today) full diplomatic recognition as the successor to the Qadhafi regime — and, thus, control over Libya’s state funds.

This lack of trust of the TNC is due to a different understanding of the genesis of the revolt in Libya. At the very beginning of the protests, Al Jazeera reported news of massacres, thousands of deaths, mass graves, bombings and attacks on hospitals and peaceful demonstrations perpetrated by Qadhafi’s troops. Setting aside the fact that evidence has established these claims to be at least vastly exaggerated, in this phase of the revolt, the Western media overlooked the real nature of the protest against Qadhafi — particularly the fact that it was, from the outset, an armed insurgency, not a peaceful protest movement against a dictator.  [See among others: International Crisis Group, “Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (V): Making sense of Libya,” Middle East/North Africa Report N° 107 (June 6, 2011).]

This media coverage apparently inspired the surprisingly rapid moves of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose behavior aroused suspicion among analysts and policy makers. Sarkozy declared Qadhafi a war criminal after two or three days of alleged massacres reported by Al Jazeera, while having ignored 40 years of assassinations perpetrated by the regime against the Libyan people as well as foreigners. The French president had welcomed Qadhafi as a friend of France and allowed the leader of the Jamahiriya to install his tent on the Champs-Élysées. Sarkozy’s activism in referring Qadhafi to the International Criminal Court probably blocked any kind of diplomatic mediation, especially from the Italian government. Behind such activism might lie French interest in Libyan oil resources and contracts for infrastructure projects. The commitment of the French to the TNC is surprisingly strong; France is the only country to have provided weapons to the rebels as of the end of June.

Nevertheless, the revolt and the subsequent military intervention by France, the UK, Italy and the United States under NATO command, failed to achieve the expected result — the ousting of Qadhafi. Indeed, even if NATO had managed to significantly weaken the military forces of the regime, the solution proposed by the Western powers does not seem to be working. The rebels, despite NATO support, are still disorganized, poorly trained, undisciplined, and prone to infighting. The TNC has only spotty control of the territory. In large areas, troops loyal to the regime continue to hold their ground. Qadhafi has kept control of the south, where weapons and mercenaries can pass undetected. Moreover, despite commonly held beliefs to the contrary, in and around the capital, Qadhafi still enjoys a certain degree of favor, as the large demonstrations at the end of June clearly demonstrated. In any case, it appears evident that the majority of residents and tribes of Tripolitania, while not necessarily supportive of the regime, are maintaining neutrality, probably waiting to see what local leadership emerges. Regional rivalries have a long history in Libya.

For these reasons, the funds needed to organize the freed territories and to continue the war against Qadhafi should be managed by an independent international commission and not by the TNC. The West should insist on this, at least until — thanks to NATO’s greater military involvement — the whole country fall’s to the rebels. At that point, under UN supervision, a constitutional assembly and an interim government should be formed and elections organized. Only then should full recognition be given to the new democratically elected Libyan government that emerges.

This scenario leaves us with two possibilities. If Qadhafi is killed and his forces surrender, the implosion of the regime might trigger anarchy — though some structures of the regime might survive to guarantee public order and, with the TNC and the international community, organize a transitional process. On the other hand, if NATO strikes do not succeed in killing Qadhafi, and the regime maintains its hold on some important areas, the most probable outcome would be de facto partition. One zone would fall under the TNC administration; in the other, the war against Qaddafi would continue. In this second scenario, unfortunately the more probable, the narrative of the revolt’s genesis becomes important. Facing the impossibility of conquering Libya — their original plan — France and the UK, followed by Italy, would try to at least control part of the country. This, coupled with full recognition of the TNC government, would allow the Europeans to have access to the enormous resources of the Libyan state.  

Pragmatism should determine U.S. choices in this phase. There is almost universal consensus in the West that Qaddafi must go and his long regime be brought to an end.  Nevertheless, the TNC should not be recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan nation, mostly because of its suspicious genesis. A UN commission should be formed to manage Libyan funds and administer the country. Meanwhile, as the two American senators vociferously advocate, a much stronger involvement by NATO in conquering the western part of the country should be undertaken to oust the regime — but only if the West continues to prefer war over negotiations with Qadhafi. The latter option, since it is the only one that serves the interests of the whole Libyan population, should be undertaken wholeheartedly and all efforts exerted to bring about a peaceful and controlled transition. Unfortunately, despite the attempt of the South African Zuma, this is not, as of now, the West’s choice.

Although Libya today might not be a vital interest of the United States, it could become one, if the current situation is allowed to degenerate. The potential humanitarian crisis, terrorist infiltration, and proliferation of criminal organizations that might develop in a failed state in the middle of the Mediterranean are not in the interest of the United States of America.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top