In the Aftermath of Libya: a Chance to Define “Responsibility to Protect”

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Libya, in the words of the Obama Administration, was a “time-limited, scope-limited” engagement enacted under the responsibility to protect doctrine. After decades of dealing with Qadhafi’s nepotism and secret police, I hope that Libyans will be able to move towards a participatory democracy (and, I hope, we will see a continued airing out of all the zenga-zenga-ing the late Colonel engaged in with US lobbyists, oil majors and European defense contractors).

NATO went in hard by air, and then left the NTC (National Transitional Council of Libya) in charge to ensure democratization and guarantee a semblance of unity in the country. Some felt that the US had proven the efficacy of the “time-limited, scope-limited” interventionist model, even though some earlier incidents in Libya – such as reports of extrajudicial killings and the racially-motivated targeting of migrant workers – did emerge to sour the warm welcome that the NTC was enjoying in Western capitals. Further comments of this nature, Jadaliyya notes, have barely registered in the media, or, it seems, in the capitals of the states who helped put the NTC in power.

The New York Times reports that Libyan militias are defying the government’s calls to lay down their arms. “Much about the scene on Wednesday was lamentable, perhaps because the discord was so commonplace,” the Times intones, but it’s also lamentable because this outcome should have been anticipated by more observers. After Iraq, it should be clear that removing the central authority from a country with extensive weapons stockpiles is a cause for concern for the new regime’s security (and therefore, its legitimacy). Without a military force to guard these depots, anyone and everyone can raid them for profit or to augment their militias. Given the animosities among rival militias – who to trust when everyone’s armed, and why give up the power you’ve gained by arms? – it is no wonder these militias don’t want to turn in their guns to the NTC and rely on the “new” Libyan Army to maintain order: “rival militias, most of them deriving from particular tribes,” Joshua Hammer reported, “withdrew their pledge to disarm [in November 2011], declaring that they would preserve their autonomy and shape political decisions as ‘guardians of the revolution’.”

This mistrust and opportunism, in turn, makes it that much harder for the NTC to guarantee security throughout the country, encouraging militias to continue augmenting their forces. The Arabist’s own Abu Rohan was in Libya this past August, and he hoped then that because of the popularity of NATO intervention, “proposals like bringing in the UN to help with the transitional process, as some Libyan politicians have proposed, [were] probably going to be broadly acceptable.” Political will within Libya – and the international community – has unfortunately not yet manifested towards this end.

Racially motivated violence and extrajudicial political murders remain a serious problem in Libya – largely because of the impunity that tormentors can exercise towards refugees and former members of the Qadhafi regime. The continued detention of some 1,500 people, who had fled reprisals from anti-regime militias, in Tripoli remains a major source of concern because some of these militias continue to try and raid the camp to exact revenge against a community they blame for assisting Qadhafi’s crackdowns. It is left to the goodwill and guns of those militias actually protecting the camp’s inhabitants to keep things from escalating.

In addition to concerns about missing weapons stockpiles, STRATFOR reports on the nagging concern that

. . . thousands of armed Tuareg tribesmen who previously served in Gadhafi’s military have returned home to Mali. The influx of this large number of well-armed and well-trained fighters, led by a former Libyan army colonel, has re-energized the long-simmering Tuareg insurgency against the Malian government.

The analysis of the situation notes that the danger remains that these rebels could “re-establish Libyan lines of supply through a new relationship with the black and gray arms market there,” a market that radiates throughout the Sahel and offers good opportunities for those who possess stocks of Libyan arms (and very few scruples). It is clear that the NTC cannot secure Libya’s borders due to its own incapacitation in Tripoli. So where is the international response to the problem? Where is Doha (training pliant Islamist officers for the Libyan Army)? Where are Geneva and Brussels? Where are Paris, London, and Washington?*

It should now be clear the rosy optimism and “fire and forget” mentality the international community displayed over Libya has been gravely misplaced, to the detriment of the country, its neighbors and to the West’s ostensible interests in regional security and stopping human rights abuses. Of course, had Colonel Qadhafi remained in power, these problems would have been present in different ways, particularly in the form of human rights abuses (the NTC’s current difficulties do not posthumously absolve the man of his actions). Yet the way Libya has been handled does not offer a good precedent for those arguing that we can intervene in Syria by arming opposition groups, hitting the regime hard by air, and then hoping that things will work themselves out on the ground in favor of the people we’ve intervened on behalf of.

If Western countries are truly interested in seeing a democratic transition in Libya (or Syria), and not just determined to remove a brutal dictator who has outlived his welcome, then these countries have to accept the fact that their “responsibility to protect” (R2P) cannot end when the last bomber drops its payload and heads for home. This does not necessarily mean putting a foreign army on the ground, or full-scale subsidization of reconstruction efforts. But it does mean more international aid (especially from those who helped Qadhafi dig Libya into a hole despite its oil wealth) and assistance that will focus on getting militias to lay down their arms and commit to a political process, instead of pretending they don’t exist as stumbling blocks to that process, or worse, deciding to resort to drone warfare to “suppress” the “insurgents” on the peripheries.

I don’t think we’ll be flying armed Predators over the Libya-Chad border anytime soon, but I brought in drones for a reason, and that reason is to note that such military responses from other countries become more likely to occur when a government fails to secure the country and be seen as being “responsive” to US interests. When a government is divided and unable to control its own people – whether through explicit violence or by gaining their trust – it enters a danger zone that can ultimately lead to outside military intervention. And then the cycle repeats itself. If “R2P” really does end – not just militarily, but diplomatically – when the last bomber heads for home, then we may be arguing in a few years over whether or not the bombers ought to go back.

*Rome, for its part, is back in the game.