Libya and the United States: More than Benghazi

Photo by Brandon Aitchison

This op-ed was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 1.

By Andrew Engel 

The September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya renewed our national focus on a country we helped to liberate a year ago – and then soon forgot. But rather than debate the components of a comprehensive, coherent Libya policy, the presidential campaign was overwhelmingly occupied with whether or when the president called the attack an act of terrorism. What was missing was a serious conversation on U.S. leadership and missed opportunities in a country struggling towards democracy and desirous of U.S. assistance. This misguided focus, whether for the sake of political theatre or not, demonstrates a clear misunderstanding by senior policymakers of what is at stake in Libya: security, money, and partnership.

Unlike Libya’s neighbors Tunisia and Egypt, which preserved their far-more established civil societies, structures of governance, and military and security apparatuses, Qadhafi’s 42-year rule effectively dismantled the state and turned Libya into an extension of his family. With his death, so went the state. Although Libya has not always been forthright in its requests for security assistance, primarily because the National Transitional Council (NTC) felt it was only a caretaker government until an elected government could take power, the United States sought an even more passive approach than “leading from behind,” even as countries such as Turkey, Jordan, France, and Italy began offering security assistance and training programs. As a result, the United States is at risk of missing an opportunity to bolster security and gain insight into, and influence with, Libya’s myriad rebel groups, underdeveloped national army, and reconstituted intelligence apparatus. The attack on the U.S. consulate, as well as other attacks against Western targets such as the British Ambassador’s vehicle, or the Red Cross offices in Misratah and Benghazi, shows that security is not exclusively a Libyan concern.

A comprehensive Libya policy, however, should not be limited to security and counterterrorism, but should also include the expansion of U.S business opportunities in Libya’s emerging economy. The country has upwards of $110 billion in assets, $60 billion of which belongs to the Libyan Investment Authority, which has $20 billion in cash. This is in addition to Libya’s underestimated oil and gas reserves: 47.1 billion barrels of oil as of January 2012 – the largest in Africa – and 52.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Furthermore, the French Business Council estimated that there is $200 billion worth of potential investments in Libya over the next decade, investments predicated on improvements in security.

However, even Libya’s security challenges present the United States with substantial economic opportunities. Due to Libya’s vast land area and small population of just under seven million, the country cannot field an army large enough to secure its borders, but instead will have to rely on armed forces with a qualitative edge and advanced observation capabilities. Equipping and training such an army could provide billions of dollars in new contracts for U.S. defense firms. As we continue to struggle with weak domestic economic growth, the U.S. should be actively promoting American business investments in a country the IMF said is expected to have GDP growth of 122% for 2012 and 17% in 2013.

The U.S. role in liberating Libya fueled significant pro-American sentiment among the Libyan people.  An August 2012 Gallup poll revealed that 54% of Libyans have a favorable view of U.S. leadership – a higher percentage than in Canada. This sentiment was evident on the Libyan streets with the end of NATO operations and, more importantly, during the outpouring of grief following the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans – a stark contrast to the indifference other publics and leaders in the region have shown towards attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities. It is no surprise then that, given this positive view of U.S. leadership, Libyans in many regards look to the United States for inspiration as they build a new country. For example, Mohammed Magarief, the leader of Libya’s first elected body, the General National Congress (GNC), has expressed his desire for a democratic, civilian-led, secular, and constitutional state. This is obviously a tall order, and is only representative of one political current, but it is nonetheless the political current that U.S. leadership should engage. Libya could still become a U.S. partner and a success story amidst an increasingly uncertain “Arab Spring.”

Fearful of being perceived as overreaching, the Obama Administration’s post-Qadhafi policies have centered on a light American footprint and a wait-and-see approach. The administration has not been shy about its unwillingness to lead in Libya and has taken a cautious approach in the policies it has promulgated, particularly with regards to security. While it is true that post-Qadhafi Libya faces daunting challenges, the president and Secretary Clinton have not clearly outlined U.S interests in Libya and articulated how the United States can achieve them.

Congress has not done much better. Although Congress was swift in reacting to the Consulate attack, it has exercised little oversight over the administration’s Libya policies. With the exception of a few members, until the death of Ambassador Stevens, Capitol Hill was largely uninterested. A review of the congressional hearing schedule reveals that neither the Senate nor House committees on armed services or foreign affairs held a single hearing focusing on U.S. policy towards Libya since the fall of Qadhafi. With little congressional oversight or U.S. media attention on Libya, it is clear why policymakers were left to parsing who said what when, rather than discussing U.S.-Libya policy as a whole.

To be clear, significant challenges remain in Libya. But the country now has a new government, led by Prime Minister Ali Zidan and his recently approved cabinet, which has placed security and the economy at the top of their list of priorities. As Congress and a second-term Obama Administration grapple with the fallout from the Benghazi attack, policymakers should not lose sight of the bigger picture: U.S policies should be clearly defined and aggressively pursued. A more secure Libya with the means to counter weapons proliferation and the flow of terrorist groups across its borders translates into a more secure United States, and with security comes ample economic opportunities upon which to foster a true U.S.-Libyan partnership.

Mr. Engel  is an M.A. candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and traveled through Libya in October 2011.

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