Libya: The Case for Diplomatic Recognition

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This past week, Mahmoud Jabril, representative of the rebel Libyan government, met with the White House seeking—among other things—diplomatic recognition from the United Sates. The National Transitional Council (NTC) formed officially on March 5, 2011, in Benghazi to manage the affairs of rebel held territory in Libya. However, official US recognition to the NTC was not forthcoming; all that he got was an American assurance that the NTC is “a legitimate and credible interlocutor of the Libyan people.” While this isn’t too bad—and it should be noted the US has a special envoy in Benghazi, Chris Stevens, and that the US pledged continued financial assistance—it is somewhat puzzling that the US is not making more of an effort to pursue official diplomatic relations with the Libyan rebels.
First off, the Libyan civil war is not going to last forever. Backed by NATO air strikes, rebels succeeded this week in clearing Misrata of pro-Gaddafi forces following a two-month siege. Activity on Twitter hints at continued defections, the ICC is threatening to issue an arrest warrant for Gaddafi, and Britain is urging further NATO involvement. In all probability, Gaddafi’s regime will not last much longer, although how much longer is difficult to say. At this point, the NTC is the natural successor to Gaddafi despite its inexperience and deficiencies. In order to minimize the instability of the country, the NTC ought to be receiving as much help as it can—not only militarily, but also politically. Diplomatic recognition could help legitimize the NTC at home and abroad while helping to delegitimize the remnants of Gaddafi’s regime, isolating him further politically. Gaddafi and the rebels would get a clear sign who the US is deciding to throw their support behind. Perhaps diplomatic recognition would even inspire other countries to do the same.
Additionally, it would allow the US to establish positive, high-level relations with the NTC. With much closer proximity to current Libyan affairs, the US would be in a better position to positively influence the NTC and Libyan society on its way to a more democratic, inclusive state. Perhaps more US diplomatic staff could be provided to Libya. Under Gaddafi’s rule, civil society was virtually eliminated, so the extra support in the form of experienced US diplomats working with young Libyan diplomats could provide a huge organizational boon to a group of rebels still struggling to form a coherent identity. High level contacts and personal relationships of trust could begin to develop. In this situation, the US has a chance to engage in, or at least strongly influence, state-building in a legitimate and (mostly) non-military manner. And all this would be in a region where the US lacks a strong democratic ally (aside from Israel) and has a less-than-stellar reputation. However, the US must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan in state-building, and any political support must be culturally sensitive and responsive to the desires of the Libyan rebel government.
The hesitation of the US to extend recognition to the NTC seems to stem from a lack of uncertainty over the make-up of the NTC and the fact that it is not an elected body. These concerns are valid and further investigation of the NTC is merited. However, these concerns shouldn’t prevent the US from further diplomatic engagement with the rebel government. Upon its formation on March 5, the NTC released astatement on its website promoting its devotion to democratic principles. There have been few if any credible reports of the NTC or rebels engaging in human rights violations or terrorist activities. Besides, direct engagement could help neutralize or contain more radical elements in the NTC. In any case, the NTC deserves diplomatic recognition to help ensure an American-friendly, democratic, and—most importantly—functioning post-war Libya.

James Juchau

James studies economics and Arabic at Brigham Young University in the hopes of one day participating in global economic development efforts. He speaks French fluently and has spent time in the Middle East and Europe. He is currently interning with Development Gateway in Washington, DC, and will be doing an Arabic study abroad program in Jordan in the fall.

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