This paper will discuss questions of U.S. interests involved with possible interference in Libya, first through economic and geopolitical lenses. Then, these interests will be practically balanced and weighed against the respective harms to U.S. geopolitical, economic, national security, and even environmental interests. Then, the moral question will be addressed, with benefits the U.S. might hope to gain from interference in Libya being temporarily put aside. An analysis will be conducted into the Libyan civil war, economic issues, human rights violations, refugee crisis, and legal process in order to determine if the Libyan crisis is so immense that a moral obligation to assuage it exists. Specific tools in the U.S. diplomatic toolbox will be explored in order to determine if an effective and productive mode of interference exists.
In discussing whether the U.S. should interfere in Libya, the first question worth asking is whether the U.S. has interests worth interfering on behalf of in Libya. Put simply; the U.S. does have interests in Libya worth considering. In 2010, $41.9 billion worth of oil was exported out of Libya. The U.S. has broad counter-terrorism interests in the Middle-East and, as disputes and power vacuums in the region provide opportunities for terrorism to take root, it is certainly worth considering if U.S. interference would provide finality to the crisis while deterring terrorist cell growth.
It is, however, narrow-minded, selfish, and asinine to assert that U.S. economic and geopolitical interests are, alone, the only interests worth considering when discussing interference in Libya. After all, a central aim of the U.S. is to both increase energy independence from foreign entities and another aim of the U.S. should be to, more importantly, reduce the use of fossil fuels like oil in light of security and environmental challenges posed by climate change.
The U.S. interest in reducing terrorism, also, does not seem to be historically effective at reducing its presence, at least through military interference. The U.S. military interference in Iraq, for instance, has been recognized as a failure of U.S. foreign policy. While in conjunction with interference in Afghanistan, it can be credited with the destruction of much of Al Quaeda’s leadership, U.S. interference in both Iraq and Afghanistan bolstered anti-American in the region and lit the spark which started the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Arguments made in respect to the U.S. benefiting from interference in Libya geopolitically or economically, at least in a short term manner, are therefore improper in describing the impetus for the U.S. to interfere. Instead, the U.S. must view this calculus as one of morality, not material gain. The U.S. can only hope to achieve the long term end of making Libya into a steadfast ally in a tumultuous region if the U.S. takes its first blind step in the direction of altruism. In other words, the U.S. must not decide to take action in Libya because of what it stands to gain, but because of what Libyans have already lost and will continue to lose if nothing is done.
The question should, then, be reframed from whether the U.S. has interests worth interfering on behalf of to the following: is there suffering in Libya such that U.S. interference is morally demanded and, if so, would diplomatic interference quell or swell that suffering? There is, without a doubt, suffering in Libya that morally commands some form of action. Between February and June of 2018, clashes in the southern town of Sebha between armed groups loyal to the Awlad Suleiman and Tebu groups erupted, resulting in the deaths of at least 16 civilians. In May of 2018, the Libyan National Army (LNA) began an attempt at wresting control of an eastern city in Libya from the Derna Mujahedeen Shura Council (DMSC), an armed group with terrorists in its membership. Clashes erupted on August 26th of 2018 in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, between armed groups vying for control of state institutions. While the south side of Tripoli faced most of the conflict, careless shelling in civilian neighborhoods killed 120 civilians and wounded 400 more.
These conflicts, a product of an ongoing civil war, along with three major terrorist attacks on the part of ISIS in 2018, have caused an immense amount of death, injury, and destruction. This unfortunate situation has, further, stacked on top of already pressing economic, legal, and human rights challenges in Libya. The unemployment rate since 2009 has been between 19 and 25 percent, with unemployment amongst the youth population as high as 30 percent. The death penalty is a punishment for over 30 articles in Libya’s penal code, including for acts of speech and association. An unknown amount of people were sentenced to death by Libyan civil and military courts since 2011, often as a result of trials characterized by due process violations.
Libyan law does not outlaw domestic violence and allows a man who kills his wife or another female relative because of suspicion extramarital sexual relations to get a reduced sentence. Tens of thousands of civilians have had enough of the conflict, persecution, and economic struggle, so they have been displaced; roughly 40,000 – 200,000 people, to be precise. In order to stop the perpetuation of civil war, the death of civilians, the denial of fundamental human rights, and the state-sanctioned abuse of women, the U.S. should interfere in Libya and is, arguably, morally obligated to do so. It is, also, clear that military interference is counterproductive, leaving only the diplomatic toolbox for solution methods. A foremost concern is whether such diplomatic interference is unilateral or multilateral. After all, interference is often viewed better by recipient nations if such interference is multilateral and tends to be more effective because of the increased power of multiple nations. With Libya, however, the U.S. has a unique opportunity and is arguably forced to act unilaterally. Under the Trump administration, Article five of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which guarantees that member nations come to each other’s aid in times of war was not re-signed by the U.S., stressing U.S. ties and eliminating U.S. soft power over these nations, which would be most likely to aid in some diplomatic form. Additionally, past NATO interference in Libya was viewed as counterproductive by civilians and, unfortunately, produced adverse outcomes. These factors present an opportunity for the U.S. to re-brand its interference as altruistic.
Re-branding interference is not just a matter of aesthetic changes, but mechanical ones as well. The mechanical changes could include but are not limited to: increases in developmental aid, the imposition of sanctions, deployment of UN peacekeeping forces, and the formulation of a clear strategy which promotes negotiation and peace between the several fighting factions inLibya. While the United States government has committed to providing $187 million in assistance to Libya, only $12.7 million has been spent thus far; delivering on that full promise of aid would be an excellent start at convincing Libyans that the U.S. will keep its promises to them. The identification of more friendly and ethical groups in Libya, potentially providing aid to these groups, and sanctioning opposing parties which are opposed to peace, fundamental issues of human dignity, and negotiation will work to either bring parties to the negotiating table or to combat adversarial parties in Libya along with their ideologies.
It may take a long time, but the U.S. has long acted with blatant disregard for the concerns of civilians and rational actors in regions in which it interferes. The U.S. taking time with long term strategy and sanctions while still tending to urgent issues of death with aid and peacekeeping is necessary to establish a pattern as an actor on behalf of peace and to change Libyan perception of the U.S. from the zooming drone in the sky to the shining city on the hill.
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