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Fight Gaddafi politically

Steve Yetiv writes: US and allies must recognise rebels' transitional council to help it bridge the divide between tribes and establish a democratic state

Diehard supporters
Image Credit: Reuters
A supporter of Muammar Gaddafi shouts during a rally in Tripoli in this March 19, 2011 file photo.
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US President Barack Obama wants to see Muammar Gaddafi gone and Libya stabilised, which raises an obvious question: Do the US and its allies have a political plan or endgame to match a military strategy?

Gaddafi may or may not fall in the coming weeks. Without a political plan, there could be a prolonged war in Libya. Or, if Gaddafi is removed, Libya could turn into a chaotic, Somalia-like country.

It's also hard to rule out an ongoing civil war among competing tribes, militias, democratic voices, and military elements. Nor is it impossible that radical jihadists could gain some influence or that a new secular autocrat could arise to replace Gaddafi in a Back to the Future sequel. These are bad outcomes for Libya, the Middle East, and the West.

Prolonged instability in Libya could also drive oil prices higher, especially if a rebounding global economy leads to higher oil demand and greater pressure on oil supply. High oil prices always hurt the poor more than the rich around the world.

Here's a political plan that will help avoid these scenarios, remove Gaddafi, and enable a more stable Libya.

Nation-building in Libya is not the job of America and its allies, but they should join France in recognising Libya's provisional, rebel government called the National Transitional Council.

Established on March 5 in Benghazi, it is composed of 31 members who represent different Libyan regions and cities. The council has already appointed officers for foreign affairs, military affairs, and even the oil sector.

Former Libyan diplomat Mansour Saif Al Nasr, the council's European Union spokesman, stated recently that once Libyan territory is "liberated", a constituent assembly will be formed to draft a constitution, establishing a democratic, secular state.

The council should re-affirm this goal formally as a precondition for greater recognition. Its announced members are experienced, even if not exactly Thomas Jeffersons.

Whether or not the US and its western and Arab allies recognise the council, they should either publicly or privately encourage it to take the following steps:

n Assure pro-Gaddafi Libyans in the military, tribes, and citizenry that they will be reintegrated fairly into a new Libya. If they think they will be attacked and alienated, they will be more likely to fight alongside Gaddafi and, if he falls, to undermine a post-Gaddafi government.

n Identify strong military leaders who can provide order in Libya — as the military in Egypt is doing today — while democratic institutions are slowly built. Some liberal-minded, defecting generals could fit this bill. Without order, democracy will face difficulties.

  • Delegitimise Libyan radicals or autocratic elements. The council must do this by re-stating in the global media its commitment to a secular, democratic Libya. This will help it earn global support.
  • Try to bridge the divide among the tribes in western Libya that have supported Gaddafi and those of the east. Historically, they have been at odds, and if they are not bridged, Libya could end up in civil war or as a country with two capitals: Tripoli and Benghazi.
  • Tap Iraq's expertise. The Iraqis have gone through the process of setting up democracy in the heart of the Arab world, despite competing ethnic and religious factions.

From experience, Iraqis know the gruelling nature of a new democracy and the persistence required to make it work. The Iraqis, working with the western allies, can provide Arab legitimacy in the effort to bolster the National Council.

All these steps may also put some additional pressure on Gaddafi to quit Libya even before he is hopefully deposed. Supporting the rebel council will also help the US set up positive relations with what may well be Libya's next government.

Historically, military measures don't often produce good outcomes without a political plan. Such a plan can help remove Gaddafi and lay the groundwork for a more stable Libya, North Africa, and Middle East.

Steve Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University and is the author of Crude Awakenings, The Absence of Grand Strategy, and Explaining Foreign Policy.