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What's Next for U.S.-Libyan Relations?

With vast oil reserves but a deeply divided country, Libya is vulnerable to outside powers after Gaddafi's death.

After Muammar Gaddafi's demise, the future of Libya's relationship with the United States remains uncertain.

Libya ousted its longtime leader in essentially a civil war in which the U.S. and NATO backed one side. This is a stark contrast with the independent and largely nonviolent revolutionary processes that led to the ouster of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, and are still underway in much of the Arab world.

But Washington wasn't the NATO intervention's original instigator. That role lay in Europe, starting with France, whose president was still smarting from political attacks for his too-little-too-late response to the Tunisian uprising. It set the stage for Europe to exert special influence in Libya's new government, which will probably also give Europe privileged access to Libya's oil.

Ironically, Europe and the United States didn't really need a war to create good relations with Libya — they already had them. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the Bush administration was eager to round up new recruits for its "global war on terror," it sent emissaries to make nice with the long-excoriated Libyan leader.

Soon, Gaddafi was brought in from the cold. He agreed to dismantle Libya's nascent nuclear program and offered compensation to families of the Lockerbie bombing. He even resumed normal diplomatic relations with the United States and Western Europe, his once-and-future enemies. Within a few years, U.S. and European oil companies were inking contracts. By 2007, photos of Gaddafi arm-in-arm with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — as well as George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and, famously, Condoleezza Rice — were commonplace.

For the United States in 2011, the strategic interest in turning on Gaddafi, despite these newfound chummy relations, was primarily rooted in the fear of losing control. Gaddafi was our guy — but Washington had to ask: What if? What if the mercurial Libyan leader, under pressure from anti-dictatorship democratization processes next door, reversed course and turned to Washington's enemies for strategic ties?


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"What if?" quickly became "yes, let's." The Libyan opposition leaders who first said, "We can do it ourselves," started saying, "just a no-fly zone, but no foreign intervention" — even though top U.S. generals had already said you couldn't have one without the other. Now, the question of whether, when, and to what degree a new Libya can break free of its current dependence on Western militaries and other strategic backers remains unanswered.

In his 42-year reign, Gaddafi concentrated power in his own hands and allowed little freedom of speech, assembly, or political opposition. He used Libya's oil revenue to arm and train a set of geographically and politically separate militias, many of them commanded by his sons and other relatives. They answered only to him, and the official national army remained relatively weak.

But Libya's oil wealth is massive enough — especially in light of the country's small population — that Libyans enjoyed national systems of healthcare, education, and other public services that were relatively good by developing-nation standards. Libya ranks No. 53, according to the UN's human development indicators, for example — higher than Saudi Arabia, Russia, or Brazil. So it wasn't surprising that many Libyans continued to support Gaddafi despite his repression.

The challenge facing post-Gaddafi Libya is daunting. The power, accountability, and especially the legitimacy of the interim governing structure remain contested. The civil war created new divisions and consolidated others between the diverse parts of the Libyan population.

The transitional government has pledged to hold elections within eight months. But it won't be easy to hold free-and-fair elections so quickly in a country with no recent legacy of political parties or civil society institutions. Meanwhile, it's worth asking whether Washington's offers of "help" will instead serve as cover for ensuring a continuing U.S. foothold in the very center of an otherwise increasingly independent region.

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the 7th updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Follow her on Twitter: @PhyllisBennis

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