Trying to Manage the Post-Qadhafi Libya While Qadhafi is Still Around
NBC Executive: What's the premise [of your proposed television show]?
GEORGE: "...Nothing happens on the show...."
NBC executive: "Well, why am I watching it?"
GEORGE: "Because it's on TV."
NBC executive: (Threatening) "Not yet."
--"Seinfeld," The Pitch episode
By Barry Rubin
The United States has recognized the Transitional National Council (TNC) of Libya as the provisional government of that country. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns addressed the Libyan Contact Group meeting--where else?--in Turkey, the Obama Administration's favorite Middle East mediator despite that regime being a pro-Iran Islamist government that is turning Turkey into a police state. Turkey as a role model for the Arab world, anyone?
"It is critical that the TNC continue to engage with stakeholders across Libya, including those who have served in the government in Tripoli, to form a new, inclusive interim authority that can ensure civil order, respect human rights, provide essential services to the people, and pave the way for a full democratic transition....
"This new authority must represent all Libyans, from all tribes, regions, and minorities of the country. This demands a true commitment by all parties to national reconciliation—-revenge attacks and reprisals must have no part in the new Libya. Libya’s future will be peaceful only if the leaders and people of Libya reach out to each other to make peace."
Precisely because Burns, a serious professional diplomat, has stated the problems so well, I'm skeptical. For rebel commanders, the TNC is a bunch of corrupt guys with expensive suits, many of whom worked with the dictator, Muammar al-Qadhafi, in an oppressive dictatorship, and lived luxuriously abroad while the rebels were fighting and dying (and looting and burning, too). The rebels are undisciplined; there's no chain of command; and the tribes in many cases hate each other. Burns describes a utopian situation that I think has very little to do with the reality of Libya.
The Islamists are already calling for the TNC's overthrow since they--rightly--suspect it from their standpoint of wanting to create a pro-Western government. Let's see if I am right but I cannot conceive this is going to produce a stable Libya where everyone loves everyone else.
At any rate, Qadhafi is not yet dead or gone. The incompetence of the NATO-supported but not trained rebels; the fact that Qadhafi's forces know they are fighting to the death; the dictator's ruthlessness; and his option of retreating to his tribal stronghold has so far shown that reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. Of course, it might well happen but the story of repression and violence in Libya is far from over.
Meanwhile, however, the Libya issue gives us still another example of what the high-rankers in the West don't understand about the Middle East. The Western conception assumes order, hierarchy, stability, and moderation are normal. It expects that guys in nice suits and ties will walk in and become Libya's government because it knows their names, they have served in high positions previously, and the West recognizes them as the rulers. In addition, the theory is, they will be able to win support with money (through control of the oilfields) and a monopoly on weapons.
But wait a minute! As I said a moment ago (presuming you are reading this article reasonably quickly) The fact that they've held high posts previously--under Qadhafi--makes them less trustworthy to the rebels. The fact that they have Western backing makes the rebels more suspicious, as does the fact that these politicians are wearing suits and ties rather than military fatigues. Where were these guys, rebel leaders can well ask, when we were shooting it out? At five-star hotels abroad living it up at the buffet tables?
As for control of the oilfields, not even the rebels have that yet. And as for a monopoly of violence, well, who's carrying the AK-47s anyway?
A diplomat asked me, "Who's the most important leader in Libya? The head of the TNC?"
I started laughing.
Libya is a country badly divided between east and west; Arab and Berber; ideology and factions and tribes. It has not had a real political life or any tiny fragment of pluralism for more than four decades. Tunisia has a real chance of democracy; Egypt has a real chance of democratically electing anti-democratic radicals; and Libya is the Wild West of the Middle East.