Libya’s Shaky Future

How to Head Off a Major Crisis in the Region

Sarah Margon lays out what the Obama administration needs to do to respond to the evolving crisis in Libya.

New Libyan rebel recruits flash the victory sign and chant slogans as they stand in formation during a training session after signing up with the forces against Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi at a training base in Benghazi, eastern Libya, on March 3, 2011. (AP/Hussein Malla)
New Libyan rebel recruits flash the victory sign and chant slogans as they stand in formation during a training session after signing up with the forces against Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi at a training base in Benghazi, eastern Libya, on March 3, 2011. (AP/Hussein Malla)

The international community is taking welcomed steps to stop the escalating violence in Libya. It recently passed a strongly worded U.N. Security Council resolution while many countries have also called for Libyan leader Moammad Qaddafi to step down. Additional punitive measures are still under discussion. The fighting rages on but Qaddafi’s days can only be numbered. Once he’s gone Libya will stand at an important crossroads. If the Obama administration does not take steps now to help support that enormous transition, there is the potential for more bloodshed and a regional crisis of epic proportions.

Libya on the brink

Qaddafi’s loyalists have pushed into areas previously held by the opposition. The rebels, worried that they may be overpowered, have started calling for direct international support in the form of airstrikes and military equipment. But while the international community scrambles to consider its response to the ongoing violence, it is lost on no one that the real work begins the day Qaddafi falls. Forty years of absolute tyranny means Libya has virtually no opposition movements, no functional judicial process, no civil society, and no military that could help play a stabilizing role while a new civilian authority is established.

Overcoming nearly half a century of Qaddafi’s divide-and-rule tactics requires a societal and political rebirth that will be unwieldy and chaotic, and it will require the long-term assistance of the international community. Political fragmentation is a real possibility—whether due to historic tensions between tribes or competing claims to an interim authority that have already begun to emerge. There is also potential for conflict due to the complicated politics of oil.

In sum, a post-Qaddafi Libya could erupt given the very real prospects for political discord combined with the hundreds of thousands of refugees already streaming out of the country. Once the battle to oust Qaddafi is won, a much greater fight could lurk close behind.

Here are some timely measures the administration should consider to prevent a post-Qaddafi scenario from boiling over and help lay the foundation for a more stable environment.

Dealing with the crisis and ensuring a smooth transition

Make good on the QDDR

The recently released “Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review,” the State Department’s first review of its diplomatic and development efforts abroad, notes that the department “will lead operations in response to political and security crisis and conflicts, where there’s a challenge to or a breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict or a destabilizing activity by state or non-state actors.”

The State Department is clearly seizing its role and Secretary Hillary Clinton isn’t shy about her commitment to use American power efficiently and effectively. The department needs to exercise some hard-headed thinking and advanced planning to help ensure any short-term response fits into a more comprehensive, long-term plan.

It needs to marshal experts both in and out of government to make sure we are working toward a viable reconstruction plan that incorporates Libya’s complicated history, regional dynamics, disparate local voices, and the inevitable need for accountability and reconciliation. Virtually no useful models within the region exist for such a process, unfortunately. But there is no shortage of expertise from previous reconstruction efforts, including in the Balkans, East Timor, and Liberia.

Different U.S. agencies will need to consistently coordinate to make this effort work. The State Department can ensure all senior U.S. government officials are on the same page and not contradicting each other, which could serve to embolden spoilers in the region or others who seek to exploit Libya’s transitional period.

Ensure basic assistance for those in need

There are more than 140,000 people on the run according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. Clearly the humanitarian situation remains volatile, with most of those fleeing Libya heading toward Egypt and Tunisia—two countries in the midst of their own major political transitions. The strain these countries are already under has understandably caused significant concern about their ability to respond. At the same time, many humanitarian agencies are concerned by reports of food commodities and skyrocketing food prices within Libya, particularly in the western region.

The Obama administration has smartly agreed to contribute up to $10 million in immediate humanitarian assistance and another $2 million to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM. It has deployed assessment teams to Libya’s border areas. But much more needs to be done. There is a central role for U.S. diplomats to play in shoring up contributions from the international community so a robust humanitarian response can be mounted while considering what tangible, logistical support it can provide.

The administration also must work to ensure close collaboration among the donor community, multilateral institutions, civil society, and local actors given the likely difficulties associated with remote border regions.

Establish an “international contact group” for Libya

The political contours of a post-Qaddafi Libya remain virtually unknown. That’s no reason, however, for the international community to sit back until he’s gone. Establishing early on an international contact group for Libya is a useful way for the international community to coordinate toward and with a newly emerging Libya—whether in messaging or donor assistance. This would be an informal group of senior diplomats from stakeholder countries and relevant multilateral institutions who meet regularly to support and assist with Libya’s peaceful political transition. Such a group would also enable a smart division of labor that could help promote a democratic transition once Qaddafi has been ousted.

In the near term the formation of such a group could also serve as another tool to dislodge members of Qaddafi’s inner circle and further isolate him by making it clear the international community is ready to turn the page on history. Once Qaddafi is gone the group would be well-positioned to help facilitate Libya’s political transition by encouraging the formation of a single, inclusive political authority while also promoting respect for human rights, good governance, and accountability.

Finally, this group could play a key role in organizing a donor’s conference that would mobilize global support for post-Qaddafi development needs—there will be many—and lay the foundation for Libya’s long-term recovery.

Don’t rush elections

A common misunderstanding of political transitions is that elections need to occur immediately. Pressing for elections to occur quickly would be particularly unhelpful given Qaddafi’s tight grip on power for more than 40 years. A post-Qaddafi transition will be messy, bumpy, and even exasperating. And rushing elections often means we create more spoilers at exactly the moment when democratic institutions are most frail and nascent—if they exist at all.

The administration instead should prepare a realistic timeline and put our deep technical expertise into constitutional processes, institutional reform, and rule of law. When the time is right, we’re going to need a lot of talented diplomats and aid workers on the ground because consolidating democracy is by far a broader task than an election.

The Obama administration’s willingness to engage on this crisis at the most senior levels, consider a broad range of tools, and coordinate closely with friends and allies is a breath of fresh air. The challenge in the days ahead will be to address the ongoing violence while creating the space to help secure a viable political transition instead of a regional crisis once Qaddafi steps down.

The State Department should be at the helm of an interagency process and work closely with the international community. Now is its time to prove it can do more with less and do it well.

Sarah Margon is Associate Director for Sustainable Security at American Progress.

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