Common sense before troops to Libya

We should focus on strengthening democratic and non-violent processes to stabilise Libya long-term.
Lambrecht Wessels
5 May 2011

These days there is talk about committing the European Rapid Deployment Force to a humanitarian mission in Misrata, a city near Tripoli. More interesting than the question whether different Europeans countries should throw ourselves head-first into this adventure is asking ourselves what should happen in Libya. How can we make or help contribute to making Libya stable and relatively progressive? If we do not ask and answer that question first, any deployment is likely to be counter-productive.

We mean ill

For decades we have meant ill in the Middle East. That is a blunt statement, but as long as the oil kept coming and our allies were relatively pro-Israel, western Europe cared little about what followed from this. During the cold war, both the Soviet Union and NATO supported one dictator after another and trained their police and military in the sophisticated business of oppression and torture. Our ngo’s were not involved in this and took a different route: they have been training the opposition in democratisation, objective journalism, non-violent resistance and lobbying our politicians.

This has resulted in a hard fought but nonetheless also half-baked diplomatic effort on human rights and democratisation over the last decade within the so-called 'Barcelona process'. The same goes for Gadaffi. First we fought him. Then we made good money on weapon sales and his oil. Our preferred choice would be a secular new dictator who sells us (not the Chinese) his oil. This is because democratisation across the Maghreb (North Africa) would lead to an independent foreign policy, including a possible change of direction in the destination of oil sales and more expensive local labour.

In reality of course long term stability and democracy in the Middle East would deeply serve our own interest of real stability, security, controlled migration, economic prosperity and be in step with our own lofty values.

Iraq revisited

Until now not enough hopeful signs have emerged to suggest that the UN-prompted international intervention is actively seeking a new, more just, representative leadership in Libya. How are we dealing with the new central bank and the new national oil company? There is no temporary government being helped to get their house in order. This reminds me of Iraq. In the run-up to the war the US all but refused to negotiate with Shia organisations and blocked the forming of a government of national unity in exile. The Shia (60% of the population) were too closely linked to Iran according to the US and therefore a narrow band of ex-Baathists and Nationalists (the Iraqi National Congress and Iraqi National Accord, Ahmad Chalabi and so forth) were supported. As a board member of a Dutch peace organization, Dutch Interchurch Peace Council, (IKV) who had visited all the mayor Iraqi opposition groups including Dawa, Sciri, INA, INC and the Kurdish leadership - I spoke to American representatives. I asked them, if they were really interested in promoting democracy, why they did not take textbook steps to promote stability and democratization, such as facilitating a government of national unity in exile. Their answer was the same as their public position:

“We do not think these organisations are representative. We will first have a war and then see what powers arise within Iraq for us to deal with.”

We all know how terribly effective that approach was.

Let Libyans choose

We run a similar risk now in Libya. We should quickly assemble the different groups in Libya, lean on them both (Gadaffi and the opposition) to enforce the laws of war (either protect civilians or face the risk of a one-way trip to the International Criminal Court in the Hague) and help the Libyans establish a new, more just and representative base on which to build their government. Otherwise we risk an increase of influence of Islamists and Al Qaida (the over-exaggerated risk that we profess to be afraid of). We also risk a huge wave of refugees coming to Europe. Now there are new possibilities in their own countries, the last thing these people should do is dream of working as a taxi-driver in Amsterdam or taking the boat to Italy. They should want to build up their own country and get the opportunity to do so. The vast majority of these people should go back: the closing of the gates of Fort Europe is an important driver for democratisation in the Maghreb.

But before we do anything else – let alone commit troops on the ground - we should focus on strengthening democratic and non-violent processes to stabilise Libya long-term. That is just common sense.

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