It's time to look for a way to end the war in Libya, but dealing with the regime won't be easy


Louafi Larbi/Reuters

With self-appointed African Union mediators shuttling between Tripoli and Benghazi meetings with the Libyan government and rebel leaderships to try and end the war, the important question is whether the international community should be negotiating with the Qaddafis. The answer depends on what we are negotiating about and how well prepared we are to pursue our shared interests.

The subject of the negotiations must begin with the departure of Muammar Qaddafi and the rest of his family from Libya. Anything less than that would create a difficult fractious post-war situation in Libya, with a de facto division of territory between Qaddafi-held west and rebel-held east, and with Qaddafi continuing to control Tripoli. If, as former Congressman Curt Weldon proposed, Muammar were to step aside but his son Saif al Islam continued to play a role in the transitional structures, the probability of a successful transition would likewise be reduced to nearly zero.

The Qaddafi family will not give up power in Libya so long as it remains physically present. It has its own armed forces as well as security agents and controls the vast funds derived from Libyan oil exports over the past 42 years. Tens of billions squirreled away in U.S. banks have been frozen, but we can be certain more billions remain unfrozen elsewhere, or stowed in gold ingots in Tripoli. It is not even clear what "step aside" would mean for Muammar, since he has no official position in a Libyan state.

Since Qaddafi's power does not depend on his position in the Libyan state, he and his sons could well maintain their military and political power even if they were to accept retirement to a desert tent. In any case, Saif al Islam, who was educated at the London School of Economics-educated and has spent much of his life enjoying Europe's most luxurious hotel, would be unlikely to accept such a life out of power. Libya is quite unlike Egypt in this respect. Hosni Mubarak's retirement to Sharm el Sheikh was acceptable to the protesters not only because Sharm is far from the maddening crowd but also because the army seemed prepared to guarantee the political transition. It was accepted by the protesters as loyal to the Egyptian state, not to Hosni Mubarak.

Even in Egypt, there are now profound doubts about what the army is up to. Mubarak's return to the public sphere with a statement flatly denying corruption and the army's harsh treatment of protesters in Tahrir square the last few days have left many wondering whether the counterrevolution is in full swing. But Libya has no army loyal to the Libyan state. This lack of institutional framework (no constitution, few ministries, no chief of state, not even a real rubber stamp parliament) would make the transition in Libya so problematic.

The ongoing violence contributes to this uncertainty as well. Under violent attack from security forces, the opponents of Qaddafi long ago gave up nonviolent protests for an ill-prepared military assault on his regime. Qaddafi has redoubled his efforts, ensuring that there will be many dead on both sides. Accountability for the violence will not come quickly, but it will probably not come at all if Qaddafi and family are allowed to remain in the country. Most Libyans simply won't stop resisting if they remain.

So if we are negotiating about Qaddafi and his family departing from Libya, then how well prepared are we to pursue that objective?

Leverage in negotiations depends on what other options you have, should the negotiations fail. In this case, our best alternative to a negotiated solution appears to be to continue fighting. That is not a very good option. NATO will have increased difficulty finding legitimate targets, as Qaddafi's forces park their heavy armor near schools and mosques and disguise their remaining vehicles to look as much like rebel vehicles as possible. Enthusiasm for the continued military effort is likely to fade. Neither the French nor the British -- the leading forces striking Libya -- will want to go on ad infinitum, and some of the others participating will likely want to quit even earlier.

Qaddafi knows all this. Like us, his best alternative is also to continue fighting. No one should be fooled by Saif al Islam's London School of Economics degree or his smooth talk about transition to democracy. Qaddafi and his family give every indication of wanting to preserve their own power. It is hard to know for how long they can go on without running out of money, troops, or cronies, several of whom have already defected. But we can be certain that Muammar regards the issue as one of life or death and will therefore fight on until he finds a way out that enables him and his family to survive.

That is what we may very well need to put on offer: a way out, but one that will only be available if Qaddafi and family to take advantage of it soon. That is what the five AU "mediators" could usefully offer: a comfortable retirement, available only for a short time, in Mauritania, Mali, Congo, Uganda or South Africa. Of these, only Mauritania is not a state party to the International Criminal Court, which may eventually want to prosecute. Venezuela is another possibility, but it is also a state party to the ICC, and the Americans are unlikely to welcome Qaddafi as a resident of the Western Hemisphere. For those who worry that the ICC might never get hold of Qaddafi, remember Charles Taylor, who was allowed to retire to Nigeria only to later be captured and put on trial.

It appears doubtful that the AU delegation will take the kind of hard line required to get Qaddafi to leave Libya. It is much more likely that it will come back with a vague, wishy-washy offer from Qaddafi that sounds good on paper but enables him and his sons to remain in Tripoli making all sorts of trouble and preventing transition to a new, more representative regime. We should not be tempted. Compromised conclusions to NATO air wars in Bosnia and in Kosovo have proven frighteningly difficult and expensive to implement. Nor should we be tempted to put boots on the ground, as we know from Iraq and Afghanistan how painful that can be.

A satisfactory outcome in Libya will be one that vindicates Responsibility to Protect and allows the Americans to stand aside from the post-war reconstruction and leave it to the Europeans, whose energy interests give them motive and means to be helpful to the New Libya.

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