Missing the forest

At least one of Libya’s parliaments is planning to vote this week to approve, or not, the national unity government that was proposed by the country’s Presidency Council last month. Two of the council’s nine members refused to sign on to the unity cabinet proposal, and so far at least two of the proposed 18 ministers have declined their would-be appointments. So things are off to a good start.

The completely ridiculous thing about this is that while Libya has become the West’s latest Hotbed of Terrorism as ISIS’s position there has solidified, nobody in the West seems really to care how this peace deal is going. When all those Western foreign ministers got together in Rome a couple of weeks ago to talk about the course of the fight against ISIS and particularly about Libya, the focus was on the UN-brokered peace process that we’re seeing play out to diminishing effect right now:

Kerry said the two sides were “on the brink of getting a government of national unity”. Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said once it was in place, many countries would be prepared to respond to any request for help with security.

It looks like Kerry was technically right, Libya was “on the brink of getting a government of national unity.” But it seems pretty clear that, for now at least, that national unity government is going to join the Tobruk government and the Tripoli government on the growing list of Libyan governments that aren’t actually able to govern the country. But it was something for Kerry to say that could be used to justify what seems increasingly like an inevitable US re-intervention.

America and the EU are approaching Libya entirely backwards, giving lip service to a political transition while really focusing on the next military intervention. The problem is, without a genuine political transition (and no, this comatose UN deal doesn’t really seem to count), no military intervention is going to be able to dislodge ISIS from Sirte. Admittedly, there’s no guarantee that stepping up international pressure for a real settlement to the Libyan civil war is going to work, but given the extent to which both Tobruk and Tripoli have been depending on outside support to sustain the war, cutting off that support (to both sides) would at least offer the possibility of creating the conditions for a real negotiated end to the fighting.

Nobody’s done a particularly good job of explaining why Libya is suddenly such a grave threat, or why Something must be Done about it right now, and they certainly haven’t explained why that Something should be another military action rather than a genuine effort at putting the country back together. Paul Pillar argues that Libya is just the latest spot in a global game of “whack-a-terrorist,” and explains why focusing on ISIS rather than the underlying problems inside Libya is such a mistake:

The underlying problem in a place such as post-Qadhafi Libya is a lack of good governance or of any governance. Inadequate governance has multiple bad effects, including the sort of chaos that violent extremists exploit. Libya does not have a governance problem because ISIS is there; ISIS is there because Libya has a severe governance problem. Yet another fallacy in common thinking about counterterrorism is that whacking the offending group is progress. It is not, if what is left after the whacking is just more of the inadequate governance that led to the group establishing its presence there in the first place.

The prospects for creating a sound, strong, and credible authority in Libya any time soon remain very weak. The spectacle of competing coalitions in the western and eastern portions of the country persists—and that does not even count some of the other smaller power centers. The progress of the UN-sponsored reconciliation process has been so slow and meager that the slightest advance gets cheered—most recently, agreement by some but not all members of an interim collective presidency on the membership of a proposed unity government. An anti-ISIS armed intervention in this situation would be without effective local coordination and probably would introduce the moral hazard of the competing Libyan factions feeling that much freer to continue the quarrels among themselves rather than doing more against ISIS.

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