In Libya, Consider Power of Negotiation

The original impetus for Libyan intervention was to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and stop Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s slaughter of the rebels. The UN Security Council resolution that authorized force gave Qaddafi a way out without leaving office.

Yet many in the U.S. public debate are now clamoring for the Libyan leader’s head. Many overseas, especially in Europe and among the Libyan opposition, share that goal. But does it even make sense?

Indeed, U.S. policy is unusually tortured right now. On the one hand, the goals of the no-fly zone operation and related bombing missions are described as limited and finite. On the other, our broader policy aims are to see Qadhafi gone from office as quickly as possible.

President Barack Obama explains the apparent contradiction by saying that the Qaddafi’s removal can be pursued by nonmilitary means. Yet it seems incongruous to think that, if we hold back on our most powerful weapons against the Libyan tyrant, then weaker and more indirect tools can achieve regime change.

What to do?

In fact, Obama is correct—even if he seems unsure of how to explain clearly the limits of this mission.

It would be nice if the Libyan opposition, protected and encouraged by a few airplanes, could somehow, like Popeye after eating his spinach, suddenly reverse the course of the war and march successfully on Tripoli. But such an outcome seems highly unlikely.

So does the notion that a Western-led air operation, already reportedly hampered by internal disagreement over next steps and Washington’s desire to quickly minimize the U.S. role, will persuade Qaddafi loyalists to suddenly desert their leader.

I hope I am wrong. But a military stalemate on the ground seems the most likely result of the next few days and weeks of fighting. If that proves the case, we have the options of escalating or trying to make something acceptable out of a standoff in which rebels control much of the east and some of the center and west, while Qadhafi hangs on to Tripoli and a few other strongholds.

Escalation might succeed. We might try to mimic what happened in Afghanistan in late 2001, as a student of mine at Johns Hopkins suggested, using U.S. special forces and air power to work with the opposition to help them march on Tripoli.

Perhaps that would work—but perhaps not. For all his weaknesses, Qaddafi has a substantially stronger military than the Taliban did a decade ago. And the Libyan opposition may not be as battle-hardened as the Afghan Northern Alliance was.

Rather than consider Western ground force intervention—explicitly precluded not just by Obama but by the UN resolution—or encourage a potentially long and bloody civil war, we should be ready to negotiate with Qaddafi if the war bogs down in coming days.

This is anathema to many in the U.S. debate. But it is preferable to a fight to the finish with a man whom, despite his sordid history, we have basically learned to live with over the past decade.

Several solutions, however imperfect, would be worth exploring:

  • Negotiating a simple ceasefire (rather than an overall peace), one that allows us to hew to our earlier position that Qaddafi must go but recognizes we were not in position to make that happen soon. Qaddafi would have to accept international monitors to observe compliance with ceasefire lines. Both rebels and Qaddafi himself could then pump oil from their respective parts of Libya—though there might be sanctions on what Qaddafi could sell. The ultimate goal would explicitly be reunification—but with a recognition that it could take months or even years.
  • Accepting a national unity government that allowed Qaddafi some symbolic role, at least temporarily, provided international monitors were present and his military loyalists were replaced. So his ability to relaunch aggression would be circumscribed.
  • Insisting that Qaddafi step down from the national government, but allow him some titular role, like “mayor of Tripoli,” in a loose confederation that envisioned national elections to choose a democratic government within a few years

This may not be the full range of acceptable options. But it does sketch out the kinds of conditions that, however much they may make us hold our collective noses, would still be preferable to another war of regime change, followed by another protracted U.S. occupation of an Arab land.

And it could achieve our core goals—protecting lives, supporting the rebels, diluting Qaddafi’s power and, ultimately, contributing toward a reformed and transformed Libya.