The attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 and protests across the Islamic world against the film, “Innocence of Muslims,” have many officials in Washington questioning America’s role in the ‘Arab Spring.’ Because of the U.S. presidential election, political debate is focused on the future of U.S.-Libya relations. In taking a quick glance at the development of American foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Central Asia one can be overwhelmed at the dismal progress that has made in advancing democracy in those regions. There is an urgent need for a successful event to demonstrate to the domestic public and international community that America is capable of bringing stability to these regions.
Libya presents the perfect opportunity for this to happen. Libyans by and large respect the United States for helping to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi. The situation is ripe for achieving a much-needed victory for American foreign policy in the Islamic world that could potentially serve as a watershed moment in MENA. The important question is what makes the situation in Libya different than America’s position in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, and Pakistan? Before the uprising against Qaddafi began back in February of 2011, Washington had little interest in Libyan affairs. The Global War on Terror never permeated far into Libya because Qaddafi’s government placed distance between itself and terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda in order to fly under the radar of American security interests.
Additionally, religious and political organizations in Libya never engaged in intense anti-American rhetoric that is present in other Islamic countries. Essentially, America is able to start with a clean slate in Libya due to its previous lack of extensive involvement in internal Libyan affairs.
In dealing with the development of democracy and security threats in the Islamic world, America’s nation building efforts have largely depended on military operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Historically, U.S. diplomacy is dominated by support for governments run by military strongmen as in South Korea and Taiwan that emerged as functional democracies only as a response to internal social and political pressures.
The ability of establishing a sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship with Libya rests on relying on a different approach. From the outset, Washington needs to pursue its interests through the U.S. State Department, USAID, and the United Nations. Undermining Libyan nationalism under the guise of economic or security cooperation in any context should be avoided. This is an important development in turning Libya into a success story for American foreign policy.
The extent of control that Libya’s new government has over its domestic and foreign security is a reasonable concern. After 40 years of tyrannical rule, numerous repressed religious and ethnic minorities are expressing their disdain in order to settle old grievances. The probability of an outbreak of sectarian violence remains high. This is why continuing American support for the new regime remains pivotal.
The paramount issue is that of assuring that Libyans have faith in their government and this can be encouraged through USAID and other efforts. Yet for a democracy to function its people must trust their leaders to address these issues in a civil manner without relying on repression. In addition, if Libya’s government caves into American demands than it would appear to be a puppet regime and serve as a propaganda tool for anti-American organizations and more importantly it would discredit the Libyan public’s faith in their elected leaders. The instrumental tool for correcting this dilemma is for the Libyan government to find those responsible for the attacks on the U.S. Embassy. This would demonstrate that the General National Congress is capable of functioning as a legitimate governing authority.
Washington must take the necessary steps to allow this situation to occur. The first step is to continue foreign aid to Libya but to expand it. Unlike foreign aid to Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the military aspect of support to Libya should remain limited. Furthermore, aid needs to be targeted to strengthen democratic institutions and Libya’s economy. Providing the Libyan government with the necessary tools it needs to establish an environment for stable social and economic growth is essential for its long-term development. Interfering directly in Libyan internal affairs is not wise but holding the Libyan government accountable for resolving issues such as the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens is crucial in moving U.S.-Libya relations forward.
Finally, convincing Washington that it is in American national interests to support the democratic development of Libya is essential. America’s foreign policy over the past decade has suffered several setbacks most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in more progressive Islamic countries such as Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain. There exists the opportunity for America to retreat from active role in the Middle East especially after fighting an eleven-year conflict in the region.
In addition, American domestic support for further military interventions in the Islamic world has eroded significantly. However, if American foreign policy can place Libya on the path to democracy and stabilize the tense political and social situation, Washington will finally have a success story about helping to bring democracy to the Middle East. If US-Libya relations can be expanded and America can truly win over the hearts and minds of the Libyan people than Washington will be able to reverse the negative trends of Islamic relations throughout the world. Helping to create a modern democratic Islamic state will provide an American alternative to a military dictatorship, revolutionary state, or religious theocracy.
Furthermore, it will serve as an event to garner the American public’s continual support for Washington’s diplomatic mission in the Islamic world. A watershed moment in American-Islamic relations is ripe for the pickings in Libya and the opportunity to put the peace process back on track in the Middle East is worth any price.