Counterpoint: France’s Libya Move is Premature

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I’m going to have to humbly disagree with my good friend Bruce Crumley who hails France’s recognition of the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of all of Libya. Recognizing the legitimacy of the rebellion does not require recognizing a hastily cobbled together leadership structure, the extent of whose authority even over the forces fighting the Gaddafi regime is far from clearly established, as the legitimate government of Libya. It’s a premature step that underscores some of the perils of Western intervention in the conflict. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s fellow conservatives in Britain said Thursday they do not plan to follow suit because, as foreign minister William Hague put it, while opposition should be recognized as “legitimate people to talk to… we recognize states rather than groups within states.”

France’s move is in keeping with the grand-gesture style of President Sarkozy, and appears to be born of a desire to be seen to be doing something in response to the brutal military campaign being waged — quite successfully in some contested towns — by the Gaddafi regime to recover ground lost to the rebellion. France also clearly hopes to stiffen the spine of NATO allies cautiously contemplating whether to use their own forces to impose a no-fly zone to eliminate Gaddafi’s air-power advantage over his foes.

It’s one thing moving to recognize Alassane Outtara as the legitimate president of Cote D’Ivoire after he clearly defeated Laurent Gbagbo in an election whose result the incumbent simply refuses to accept, but no democratic mechanisms — or, indeed, any mechanisms at all — appear to exist in Libya to establish the legitimacy of the Council as the government of all of Libya. Indeed, its composition, necessitated by the limits of the areas under its control, means that the Council predominantly represents the eastern province. And even then it was cobbled together on the fly. Nor is it a particularly stable entity, given its limited ability to govern, and with no clear political strategy for unseating Gaddafi because of the speed of the revolt that no one was expecting. Reports of discord in rebel ranks over whether to talk to Gaddafi’s regime — with more militant youth forcing the council’s leader, former Gaddafi Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil who resigned from the regime two weeks ago, to retract an earlier statement suggesting a willingness to negotiate — should be further cause for caution. France is embracing a great unknown, and the caution of Britain and others is well-founded.

Precisely because this is clearly a civil war, with substantial numbers of Libyans still willing to kill and die to defend Gaddafi, Western efforts to consecrate the rebel leadership as the recognized government is certainly a high-risk strategy. No one spoke of recognizing those leading the Tahrir Square demonstrations as a government, after all, for obvious reasons.

If the international community in opposing Gaddafi is to support the principle of Libyans having the right to choose their own leaders, then consecrating the rebel leadership as the new government of all Libya is clearly premature — even if recognizing the legitimacy of the rebellion itself is to be welcomed.

France’s move will feed Gaddafi’s narrative that he’s under attack by Western powers looking to dismember his country. And, to be a little rude here, it’s not as if France is remembered with great affection in the Arab states of North Africa, having been an often brutal colonial power in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia; having connived with the British in 1956 to seize the Suez Canal and overthrow the popular Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser; having long propped up Algeria’s military-based regime; and which was, as recently as last month, still offering to help the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali suppress a peaceful revolt against his own French-backed autocracy.

Defeating Gaddafi’s regime will require a combination of political and military tactics whose ultimate goal is to persuade enough of those currently willing to fight for the regime that they have more to gain and less to lose from a democratic alternative. In that respect, it’s not clear that France’s gesture is necessarily helpful.