Given the mess he inherited, perhaps President Obama was right to think that a lighter touch in the Middle East was the best policy -- it's certainly immediately cost-effective. However, as we are seeing in Technicolor, de facto disengagement can be just as dangerous to our national interests as reckless, ideologically-driven over-engagement. For its promise, the Arab Spring seems to have pushed the U.S. into quasi-paralysis -- and at the worst possible time. We appear to be afraid to take firm positions on the region, lest they come back to bite us. Yet lingering prey is more easily bitten.
In 2009 President Obama delivered his much-cited New Beginnings speech in Cairo, in which he committed the U.S. to stand with the Arab Street against tyranny. This was a bold move, which (so far) we have matched primarily with a contentious, but ultimately well-executed military-humanitarian intervention in Libya. Then, as with the Apollo moon missions, we left a few footprints and moved on.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, I argued that a lack of basic follow-through in Libya has contributed to a self-fulfilling prophecy: because we did not pre-plan for post-conflict assistance, because we did not assure the few resources we did have in country had the means to act (let alone defend themselves), or that several of Gaddafi's known weapons stores were secured, we helped extremists take, by intimidation and force, what they could not gain in the polls. In so doing, we undermined the UN-sanctioned "responsibility to protect," and what was arguably the most promising of the Arab Spring popular revolts. Libya is socially homogenous, lightly populated, and not inherently prone to extremist ideology.
Many in Washington now dismiss further assistance to Libya as useless: the Libyans themselves are fractious and have limited 'absorbtive capacity.' This is true -- it's well-known that Gaddafi eviscerated most of the Libyan state organs, and old and new tensions are threatening to boil over (exacerbated by the recent disastrous "Political Isolation" law, which threatens to remove some of Libya's most progressive leaders).
At the same time, it is wrong to say we have no influence in Libya, or that we have no means of increasing that capacity. The Libyans care, and have long cared to a large degree, what the U.S. thinks. Many of the key officials in charge now, from the president to a series of key Ministers, former prime ministers, reform leaders and various members of the transitional parliament were either nurtured by, or had their formative experiences in the States, and hoped to create stronger links between the two countries.
Here's a list of what I believe are 8 things the U.S. can do immediately to help Libya, and our position there:
1.) It sounds basic, but invest more in understanding the country. Institutionally, the U.S. still knows very little about Libyan culture, politics and social dynamics. What we do know is largely concentrated on the post-2003 period. Dramatically increase incentives and funding for Arabic language training within and outside the U.S. government. It's hard -- institutionally or individually -- to be effective when you don't speak or read the language, and your information horizon is limited to a few years.
2.) Avoid narrowly defining what constitutes 'essential' U.S. government personnel -- yet make sure that the expertise is appropriate. Beef up security around American installations (as has been done), but plan to return and expand resources in line with our ability to defend them, and look for ways to augment their reach. The U.S. government has some extremely committed and over-worked people in the field right now -- support them, don't withdraw them.
3.) Further build-out and integrate specialist U.S. government offices, such as the Bureau of Conflict & Stabilization Operations to think about, propose and implement innovative crisis-response solutions in post-conflict regions. Make sure to include the most neglected and volatile regions -- like Benghazi.
4.) Help the Libyan government gain legitimacy by delivering meaningful services to its people. Identify and promote signature projects (likely, technology-driven) that will deliver the broadest meaningful assistance, in the least complex way [more on this in future posts]. Again, include Benghazi and the Southern regions.
5.) Establish a meaningful fund to support smaller scale international NGOS with deep local knowledge and connections, and the willingness and ability to act as U.S. government proxies in a range of infrastructure-boosting activities. There are a surprising number of such organizations, whose impact could be supercharged with modest additional backing. Fast track vetting and application processes, and support networking opportunities among these groups.
6.) Greatly accelerate efforts in training, education and cultural exchange: perhaps the most significant social investment made by a U.S. entity in Libya -- ever -- was the Esso (Exxon) fellowships in the late 70s and 80s, which brought hundreds of Libyans to the States for graduate educations in technical and administrative subjects. These people played a critical role in the U.S.-Libya rapprochement from 2003-2007, while Gaddafi was still in power.
7.) Create strong incentives for U.S. commercial companies to participate in commercially-rooted development assistance. Too many American firms are put off by liability concerns, out-of-date or wrong information, and at times Byzantine U.S. licensing procedures. The French, Italians, Germans and Chinese have no such inhibitions -- and stand to profit handsomely.
8.) Set clear conditions for (requested and suggested) assistance, but don't disengage before we have tried. We shouldn't blame the Libyans for being disorganized, ungrateful and unresponsive, unless our offers -- and their rejections -- are clear. We're not there yet.
Say the above costs half a billion dollars over three years. That would be a fraction of the cost of the U.S. contribution to Operation Unified Protector, and a third of pre-revolution annual U.S. assistance to Egypt. How does this sum weigh against sunk costs, the benefits of a prospective long-term ally and learning that can be applied to, to cite the obvious example, Syria. As one would hope, some of the non-governmental organizations mentioned above are sharing information on strategies and technologies with counterparts working in Syria and elsewhere in the region.