Libya Is Too Big to Fail

International intervention is the right move -- and not just for humanitarian reasons.

Despite what you may be hearing from critics of March 17's U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone and "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from harm, Libya is not peripheral to the world system. It is at its very core. Libya possesses 1,800 kilometers of Mediterranean coastline. The country produces 2 percent of the world's oil, with 85 percent of exports going to Europe. Libyan nationals have been prominent jihadists in Iraq. Since the beginning of the Great Recession and the slump in global demand in 2008, Libya has allocated $200 billion toward new infrastructure spending.

And yet Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, curiously described U.S. interests in Libya as "less than vital" in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week. He cautioned that even the modest step of participating in a multilateral no-fly zone would be incommensurate with America's limited strategic interests. Harvard University professor Stephen Walt made a similar point. "For starters," Walt argued, "let's acknowledge that the United States has no vital strategic interests at stake in the outcome of the Libyan struggle."

But a brief review of Libya's history demonstrates that Britain, France, Italy, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States have long had a great deal at stake in Libya, even before oil was discovered in 1959. Today, it is a paramount American interest that Libya not return to being a rogue state or descend into civil war. If Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi reasserts control over the east or even if he fails and the country is cleaved in two, U.S. interests in the region would suffer a major setback.

What makes Libya so important? Any real estate agent could tell you: location, location, location. Control of the country has always been a remarkably effective way to project power into Egypt, the Mediterranean, and beyond. Similarly, denying a hostile power (be it the Soviet Union, Muammar al-Qaddafi, or terrorists) the ability to destabilize surrounding countries from Libyan territory has been a consistent thread in U.S. policy since the end of World War II.

Seventy years ago, the Axis powers used Libya to launch daring tank offensives aimed at the Suez Canal. With the British victory at El Alamein in late 1942 and the ensuing conquest of northern Libya, British strategic planners decided that Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) was the only part of conquered Italian colonial territory that was essential for Britain's strategic position in the Middle East. In 1945, the Soviet Union's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, pushed for a Soviet trusteeship over Tripolitania (northwest Libya).

The Soviet bid backfired. It forced American statesmen to put aside their distaste for extending the British Empire as they realized that denying the Soviets a naval base on the Mediterranean was a core U.S. interest. France and Italy, as pretenders to world-power status and interested parties in North Africa, also wanted to have their spheres of influence in Libya. Because the "Libya question" was so rancorously contested by all parties, it was deemed unsolvable by traditional great-power diplomacy. In 1948, it was passed onto the nascent United Nations.

By the late 1940s, U.S. President Harry Truman and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin concluded that Libyan airfields were essential for Cold War defense. After Libyan independence in 1951, U.S. and British payments for basing rights formed the single-largest element of Libyan GDP until oil exports began in 1961. Even with the decline in importance of the fighter-bomber as a nuclear delivery vehicle, and thus the need for the bases, Libya's strategic importance did not wane. Accordingly, U.S. and British diplomats attempted to court Colonel Qaddafi's favor when he came to power in 1969. They acquiesced to his demand to abandon their air bases, supposing that eager compliance would encourage Libya's new leadership from drifting into the anti-Western camp. They were wrong.

As Libya intensified its support for militant revolutionary causes -- ranging from the Irish Republican Army to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to various unsavory terrorist groups -- throughout the 1970s, Western policymakers avoided reprisals against Libyan interests. Amazingly, from 1972 to 1977, U.S. imports of Libyan oil increased tenfold, and U.S. exports to Libya trebled. Qaddafi gratefully used the influx of dollars to undermine American interests in Africa and the Middle East.

The 1970s U.S. policy of bartering with a sworn enemy was abandoned under President Ronald Reagan. Convinced that Libya's anti-Western orientation and geostrategic position made regime change a core U.S. interest, Reagan famously declared Qaddafi to be the "mad dog of the Middle East." However, unilateral U.S. sanctions in 1982 and then airstrikes in 1986 -- as a response to the Berlin disco bombing -- failed to produce the desired results. By the 1990s, it was clear that the United States could not unseat Qaddafi by itself. Libya's threat to a stable post-Cold War world order was deemed significant enough that U.S. policymakers devised a way to enlist Europe in shutting Libya out of the international system. On flimsy evidence, Libya was found guilty of the devastating 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Europe was finally on board for comprehensive U.N. sanctions of Libya, which endured from 1992 to 1999.

In 1999, feeling the pinch caused by his decaying oil infrastructure and declining revenues, Qaddafi turned over the two suspected Lockerbie bombers for trial in the Netherlands (only one, Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi, was later convicted). This action caused U.N. sanctions to be suspended. As more countries began trading with Libya, the U.S. policy dating back to Reagan of actively containing Qaddafi and hoping for his ouster was no longer feasible.

In the new millennium, U.S. and British negotiators intensified their covert dealings with Libyan diplomats, and in 2003, Qaddafi made his first payment of compensation to the Lockerbie victims' families. At the same time, the colonel declared his desire to voluntarily give up his weapons of mass destruction program. The rogue was seemingly rehabilitated and multilateral action vindicated. Libya was tentatively permitted to rejoin the world community.

From 2004 to 2010, U.S. diplomats and businessman embarked on the long and hard road of normalization. Erratic Libyan behavior and electorally motivated grandstanding by U.S. congressmen -- generally on third-tier issues like Qaddafi's desire to pitch a tent in Central Park or Megrahi's release from a Scottish prison for health reasons -- frequently derailed progress.

In 2008, I changed my career as an academic of Syria to become instead a professional engaged in the American and European efforts to bring Qaddafi in from the cold and forward the agenda of pro-market economic reform and Western investment in Libya. My logic then was the same as it is now: Libya is too important in the world system to have Western strategic priorities in Libya unfulfilled and U.S. businesses shut out. This logic is grounded in history and is also best for the aspirations of the Libyan people. Over the last six decades, successive U.S. and British administrations have consistently concluded that the "Libya question" merited great economic and diplomatic sacrifices. It still does.

Today we face a familiar dilemma. Libya sits atop the strategic intersection of the Mediterranean, African, and Arab worlds, and its ability and track record in destabilizing those three areas is well documented. It is laudable that the international community has combined humanitarian and geostrategic rationales to unite under a banner of multilateral airborne intervention. This intervention must balance two equally important aims: to unseat Qaddafi and to ensure that the Libyan people have agency over their lives and political system. Hopefully, the West will play a supportive, yet decisive role in the ongoing conflict. Were Qaddafi to remain in power returning to his rogue-state glory days, it is unlikely that renewed U.N. sanctions could ever weaken his grip on power. The world needs Libya, but Qaddafi has become an expert at thumbing his nose at world opinion.

Much as we might pretend otherwise, oil is unquestionably part of the equation here. In the words of Armand Hammer, the late founder of Occidental Petroleum, Libya's oil is "the world's only irreplaceable oil." What makes Libyan oil irreplaceable is its proximity to Europe, the ease of its extraction, and the sweetness of its crude. Because many refineries in Italy and elsewhere are built to deal with sweet Libyan crude, they cannot easily process the heavier Saudi crude that would inevitably replace a Libyan production shortfall.

Since détente with Libya began in 2003, Western companies in the form of Repsol, Wintershall, Total, Eni, OMV, Shell, the Oasis Group, Chevron, Marathon, ExxonMobil, and BP have either rushed into Libya or intensified their existing operations. Those with political connections to the Libyan regime that predate sanctions have tended to fare better than others. All have an enormous stake in not losing their vast investments and being replaced by the Chinese, Indians, and Russians, were Libya to become a pariah state. Most crucially, though Europe would be hit hardest if Libyan production were to vastly diminish due to ongoing unrest or stagnate due to a lack of future investment, low production totals would have sustained negative effects on both the fragile world economy and the Libyan people.

For European countries, illegal immigration is another major concern. Starting in the 1990s, in an attempt to combat his international isolation, Qaddafi allowed all Africans visa-free access to Libya. After the Libyan populace rioted against the newcomers and no jobs were created for them, many attempted illegal crossings to Europe. The 2008 Italian-Libyan "Friendship Treaty" largely closed the spigot of illegal migration to a trickle. Any intensification of the human calamity, especially if combined with the closing of the Tunisian border, could open it to a flood. In the past, Qaddafi has frequently increased the flow of migrants when seeking to gain political concessions from Italy. Were Libya to become a failed/pariah state, there is no doubt that Qaddafi or those who would come after him could use the same tactic to pressure Europe.

Relative to the amount of oil wealth it possesses, Libya is a terribly underdeveloped country -- the unhappy legacy of Qaddafi's economic experiments of the 1980s and the U.N. sanctions in the 1990s. Despite having the highest per capita income in Africa, Libyan education levels and living conditions outside its big cities are on par with those of some of its sub-Saharan African neighbors. Only in the last 10 years has the Qaddafi family finally committed itself to real infrastructure development. In the last two years -- global recession notwithstanding -- the Libyan government spent $60 billion, with $160 billion more promised over the next five years. With global aggregate demand (especially in the construction sector) far below 2007 levels, Libya's increase in post-2007 demand promised much-needed relief for U.S. and British firms, especially in the construction management and architectural-design sectors. If Libya becomes a failed state, Western firms will likely be excluded from future infrastructure projects. In that scenario, only countries like China and Turkey-- with their greater tolerance for corruption and human rights abuses -- will benefit from Libya's billions.

Terrorism is a real concern. Although Qaddafi's rhetoric that the rebels consist of "jihadists on drugs" is funny enough to be a big hit on YouTube, Cyrenaica has long been a productive recruiting ground for global jihadi causes. If the West abandons the Cyrenaican rebels, it will not be a surprise to see more Cyrenaican fighters returning to Iraq by 2012. In fact, Libyans formed the third-largest fighting contingent in Iraq until U.S. counterterrorism cooperation with Qaddafi began to stem the flow in 2006. Similarly, during his détente with the West from 2003 until 2010, Qaddafi proved himself a reliable ally against the trans-Saharan networks of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Were the retro-rogue Qaddafi to remain in power post-2011 or should Libya become a failed state where nonstate actors could find easy cash and safe havens, the grave consequences would resonate from North Africa to the African Sahel region and the larger Islamic world.

The United States and especially Europe cannot afford a protracted Libyan civil war, a Libya ruled by a spurned Qaddafi, or a return to the 1990s situation in which multilateral sanctions largely removed Libya from the world economy, making it a breeding ground for dysfunctional governance and Islamic extremism. Libya is simply too big to be allowed to fail.



Making a Democracy

As they work to create a democratic constitution, Egypt's new leaders could learn from post-apartheid South Africa.

Recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and increasingly throughout the rest of the Arab world have certainly been encouraging, and they raise the critical question of what happens next. How will these states be able to make the transition from the discredited authoritarian regimes of the old order to the new, democratic systems that people throughout the region are demanding?

The problem is that authoritarian regimes, by definition, do not possess the mechanisms necessary for peaceful democratic transitions. There is generally no constitutional framework for genuine democracy, and political opinion has been repressed for so long that nobody really knows which group or party enjoys genuine support.

The obvious solution is to hold an election -- but with which participants, on what basis, and within what constitutional framework?

South Africa's constitutional negotiations in the early 1990s may provide an instructive example for these new democracies to study. During the South African process, parties with long histories of hostility and suspicion came together and forged a new constitutional system under the most difficult circumstances. The negotiations included both the African National Congress (ANC) led by Nelson Mandela, and its traditional arch-opponent, the ruling National Party, under my leadership. Other participants included the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the South African Communist Party, and parties representing the 10 black "bantustan" governments that had been established under apartheid.

Selecting the players for constitutional debates won't be quite so easy in Egypt. Change in South Africa had been expected for years. It was a foregone conclusion that the ANC, representing most blacks, would win the first democratic election. In Egypt, however, change came unexpectedly -- and nobody knows whether the Muslim Brotherhood, the left, or the present ruling party will emerge as the dominant group. Nonetheless, the South African experience demonstrates the necessity of inclusion.

Despite repeated crises and walkouts, these talks succeeded in producing a nonracial, democratic constitution that is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. How did we do it?

The negotiations had three distinct phases.

The first, preparatory, phase followed my speech to Parliament on Feb. 2, 1990, during which I announced the formal end of the apartheid system and Mandela's release from prison nine days later. This phase included three preliminary meetings in Cape Town and Pretoria that dealt primarily with granting immunity to ANC rebels to enable them to return from exile and suspend the group's decades of armed struggle. In Egypt it will also be necessary to determine how previously proscribed groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, will participate in the transition.

The preparatory talks also dealt with the escalating racial violence that presented a serious obstacle throughout the negotiations. We addressed the problem by adopting a National Peace Accord on Sept. 14, 1991. The accord established a National Peace Secretariat, a National Peace Committee comprising all the accord signatories, and a national peace commission under the chairmanship of Judge Richard Goldstone, chief justice of the Supreme Court, to investigate and report on violence and intimidation.

The second phase of the negotiations, the multiparty Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) talks, commenced on Dec. 21, 1991, with the adoption of a declaration of intent. The declaration sketched the broad outline of the kind of state that all the parties wanted, including: a united, democratic, nonracial and nonsexist political system; a constitution guarded over by an impartial judiciary; a multiparty democracy based on proportional representation; separation of powers with appropriate checks and balances; acknowledgement of South Africa's diverse languages, cultures, and relations; and a Bill of Rights with equality of all before the law.

The CODESA negotiations dealt with myriad thorny issues, including the creation of a media and political climate to allow free participation, the reincorporation of black homelands, and ensuring free and fair elections. By far the toughest negotiations involved setting up the new constitution. The main problem was the ANC's insistence that the constitution should be drawn up by a duly elected national convention, while minority parties maintained that agreement on the constitution should precede the first elections. The impasse was resolved toward the end of the process by the ingenious device of adopting an interim constitution under the terms of which the first election would be held. The newly elected Parliament would then adopt a final constitution. To allay minority fears, the final constitution would also have to comply with 35 immutable constitutional principles.

On June 17, 1992, constitutional talks collapsed over failure to reach agreement on the percentages by which the final document would have to be adopted -- and because of escalating violence. It was widely suspected that ANC leaders were under pressure from the group's more radical elements about the concessions they were making during the negotiations. The walkout may have been a means to calm down these aggressive factions so that the process could move forward. I don't believe ANC leaders ever truly meant to derail the process, though publicly they said they would make the country ungovernable through mass action. Eventually the talks resumed without drastic measures such as imposing martial law, thereby demonstrating the importance of patience, even under the most trying of political deadlocks.

On Sept. 26, 1992, the government and the ANC opened the way to the resumption of negotiations by adopting a "record of understanding" that endorsed most of the agreements that had been reached during the CODESA process. One of the main problems we experienced was maintaining the inclusivity of the process. As soon as the ANC returned to the talks, the IFP and right-wing parties walked out and did not return until the eve of the elections. It will also be essential to ensure that whatever happens in Egypt, the process includes all parties with significant support.

The final phase of the negotiations consisted of a multiparty negotiating process, which reached agreement on an interim constitution and the mechanisms required for free and fair elections. It was agreed that the final constitution would have to be adopted by a two-thirds majority of the newly elected parliament, failing which it would have to be approved by a 60 percent majority in a national referendum. The interim constitution was approved by the negotiating forum on Nov. 18 and adopted by Parliament on Dec. 22. The first national democratic elections took place on April 27, 1994, and ushered in South Africa's present nonracial constitutional democracy.

The process could not have been a success without a number of key factors. First, the South African political system was operating under a constitution throughout the entire process -- whereas the situation in Egypt following former President Hosni Mubarak's resignation is still unclear. That kind of continuity meant that there was no hiatus in the functioning of the courts, public services, commercial agreements, or property rights.

Second, the process was entirely South African. We did not require the intervention or mediation of any foreign powers -- though their support for the process was often invaluable. Homegrown solutions are often more durable than those that are imported or imposed from abroad.

Third, we benefited from the support of outside constitutional advisors, who were often academics and legal experts. All parties welcomed the impartiality of these advisors, enabling them to resolve deadlocks that arose from time to time.

Finally, it helped a great deal to have a man of Nelson Mandela's stature as a partner in the process. Following the assassination of Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party on April 10, 1993, Mandela played an indispensable role in calming his followers and preventing widespread conflict. Although our relationship was often severely strained, such as when he publicly and wrongly accused me of supporting violence by security forces against unarmed protesters, from the beginning we both believed that there was a basis for trust and productive cooperation. We remain friends to this day. It's unclear whether there are any leaders of Mandela's stature within the Egyptian opposition movement, but his would be a fine example to follow.

The current situation in Egypt is, of course, sui generis. It remains to be seen which individuals and parties will emerge as leaders. Clearly, the armed forces will need to play a crucial role in creating and protecting the arena for political transition. But what will happen after that? To the extent that our experience is at all relevant to the historic transformation process under way in the Arab world, South Africans will be happy to help.