Any casual observer might think that American foreign policy is little more than a once popular television show now in syndication – showing the same characters doing the same things and making the same mistakes over and over again.
One of those rerun blunders is the failure to adequately plan for or care about the “day after.” For what to do once the bombs stop dropping or the unfriendly government is toppled, the United States seems routinely to be either unprepared or unconcerned. Or perhaps unprepared because they are unconcerned.
This predictably costly approach has been on display time and time again – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and now in Libya. What frustrates so many, though, is that this shortcoming and shortsightedness are well known both inside and outside of Washington.
Everyone knows having a “day after” plan is necessary. Unfortunately, it might be too late for places such as Libya.
The lack of a realistic “day after” plan has led to a tortured path to an expanded ISIS that is threatening the whole of the North Africa region and is setting up shop just miles from the southern shores of Europe.
Now, the UN has a peace plan for Libya. But because Libya is awash in factions, political parties, armed militants including ISIS and two rival governments, the chances of an agreement on any outside plan may not be possible. With the deadline for formally accepting the UN plan already passed, there seems, again, to be no plan for what happens if (and many people think when) that plan is ultimately rejected.
The preferred “day after” plan is one of optimism – to provide assistance if a deal is approved. Most major powers made this commitment in the recent Berlin summit. But even that optimistic plan had no specifics nor policies, and promises in the Middle East dissipate very quickly. We’ve seen that show too many times as well.
It’s absolutely vital that the US come forward with specifics immediately and a plan for what to do if a deal is accepted, as well as if it is not.
If the UN plan is accepted, the US could, for example, initiate a mini Marshall Plan that includes rebuilding and protecting vital national assets including power supplies, water, gas and oil infrastructure.
Should the UN plan falter or be rejected, the US and its allies should help establish and enforce demilitarized zones around key Libyan infrastructure assets such as oil, water, electric, and food supply and distribution lines.
With or without a UN plan, protecting these resources is essential because any group which does not enthusiastically back the new peace plan is likely to retaliate by targeting them which could cripple any new stability efforts. Any government which cannot adequately provide for basic needs is unstable and susceptible to corruption, chaos and worse.
Another key role for western powers in Libya in case the UN proposal is rejected is to call for and help monitor early national elections. In reality there are few other viable options. If the UN can assist and monitor the process, early elections can re-assemble a representative national government.
No one believes national elections in Libya will be easy. Plenty of domestic and foreign factions are motivated by a desire for power instead of democracy. ISIS, the UAE and Egypt, Qaddafi’s lingering lieutenants and loyalists in the government and military will have every incentive to plot for the outcomes they desire.
But there simply isn’t any other way forward in Libya once the UN peace deal is off the table. If stability and democracy are really the outcomes the US and Europe want, they must, without choosing sides, transition key Libyan infrastructure assets from military pawns to stability and efficiency. In addition, they must force a rapid election – while doing the best to safeguard the process from foreign interference and local sabotage.
The UN proposal offers yet another opportunity for a “day after” plan in Libya. If this chance is missed again, we know how this show ends. If the main characters don’t get it right this time, all future options become more limited and more costly.