Paris Conference On Libya’s Future Opens In Optimism (And Opportunism)

  • Share
  • Read Later

Heads of State, Prime ministers and Foreign Affairs ministers of 49 countries who take part in a summit on the post-Gaddafi era in Paris, sit around a table in a room of the Elysee Palace on September 1, 2011. (Photo: Patrick Kovarik / AFP / Getty Images)

Though their military operation to defeat forces loyal to Col. Muammar Gaddafi is not quite over, Libya’s opposition leaders sealed their political and diplomatic victory in Paris Thursday during the international conference to map plans on Libya’s post-war economic and political reconstruction. Heading into the meeting of officials from 60 countries and international agencies that started Thursday afternoon, at least two common—though in some ways clashing—objectives were clear: first, ensure that a strong central government is ready to take control of and unite Libya, and avoid allowing the kind of chaos to arise there that resulted in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein; second, provide Libya’s new government with funds and partnerships necessary to create stability and rebuild the country. But that latter goal of conference participants is no doubt doubled with their competing desires to bag as many Libyan contracts for their business-hungry companies even as they all pull in the direction on assuring Libya’s future and stability.The Sept. 1 date of the international conference on Libya’s post-Gaddafi future was anything by accidental—and not the only auspicious sign the meeting began under. The date comes 42 years to the day that a youthful Gaddafi and his group of fellow army officers over-threw Libya’s King Idris in 1969. With Gaddafi still at large—and his loyalists hunkered down in several pockets of resistance despite rebel control of most of the country—the choice of Sept. 1 clearly reflects the desire of both Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) and the  international to turn the page on the Gaddafi era even before complete military victory on the ground.

Meanwhile, just hours before the jointly hosted Franco-British conference was set to open in Paris, Russia joined the lengthening list of nations recognizing the NTC as Libya’s legitimate leadership. The move followed months of Moscow’s refusal to support the United Nations-authorized intervention in the Libyan civil war, and clear disapproval of that six month, NATO-led operation that became more openly partisan to the rebel side as it advanced. With the Libyan conflict now nearly over, Moscow evidently found it wiser to become more pragmatic, and embrace the rebel leadership itself.

A few key elements occupied the largest part of the conference agenda. First off, collective efforts were outlined to free up billions Libyan assets that were frozen under the UN sanctions against the Gaddafi regime. Both the UK and France had already respectively obtained UN permission to free up $2.1 billion of those funds for the NTC; far more Libyan state money awaits release in both those countries, and many others across Europe and the world. Much of that money—as well as additional aid expected to be pledged by conference participants—will be earmarked to buy food, medicine, and other supplies the Libyan population needs, as well as to carry out restoration of  water treatment and distribution plants and  electricity plants. “We must help the National Transitional Council because the country is devastated, the humanitarian situation is difficult and there’s a lack of water, electricity and fuel,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told French radio RTL ahead of the conference.

But some of that funding expected to be pledged will also be used by the NTC to hire, train, equip, and pay police and military forces to prevent the kind of chaos that arose in Iraq with the ouster of Saddam Hussein, and disarming and break up of the Iraqi army. In contrast to what happened in Iraq, conference participants want to ensure the post-Gaddafi void is filled with a political leadership and armed forces capable of restoring and maintaining order, and prevent outbreaks of anarchy. In doing so, it is hoped Libya will be spared the kind of lawlessness, score-settling, and massacres that occurred in Iraq, would both require outside intervention to quell, and raise questions about the credibility of the NTC as a stable, responsible central power in Libya for the rest of the world to deal with.

“No one is trying to say ‘Iraq was done wrong, we’ll get Libya right’, but instead we’re seeking to draw from all past lessons and experience the international community has in the hopes of making sure things go the way we all want them to in Libya,” says a French diplomat, who also notes that–the Franco-British hosting of the conference notwithstanding–the meeting isn’t about  participants cashing in on having backed what turned out to be the winning NTC side.

“The picture was troubled enough even just a month ago as that no one has any ideas now about saying ‘I told you so’, or jockeying to remind Libyans who their best friends have been,” the diplomat says. “This is about the rest of us—it’s about Libya. Russia didn’t participate in the air intervention, and even criticized it along with many other countries-including our fellow members in NATO and the European Union. They’re all here, and that’s wonderful. And Russia has now recognized the NTC—we couldn’t ask for more.”

But as sincere as international desires are in wanting to see a stable, peaceful, democratic Libya arise from the ashes of the Gaddafi regime, the conference also marks the real start of what’s expected to be serious competition for business contracts in Libya between the same countries who banded together in the military intervention that eventually aided rebel forces to take control of the country. Italy—Libya’s colonial ruler—is known to be particularly wary of intervention-leading countries like France and Britain increasing their previous business footholds in Libya. European nations, meanwhile, are eyeing U.S. efforts to extend the activity of American companies that has steadily grown in Libya over the past decade. Russia and China also want part of the post-war pie that whose slicing the Paris conference begins—or accelerates.

That international jostling risks being most active in the coming weeks due to the economic stakes in Libya being perhaps largest for foreign players in the early post-war period. Much of Libya’s huge oil industry has been diminished due to fighting, sanctions, or destruction over the past year, and a huge source of funding tin he country’s looming reconstruction will come from resumed oil production and the revenues that brings in. And with existing contrast having been signed by a Gaddafi regime that a growing number of foreign governments no longer recognize, the NTC will have a free hand choosing partners in rebuilding its oil facilities, and operating them afterwards.

Indeed, given the stakes involved in that sector alone, it’s a little hard to believe the mantra that the Paris conference is one of utter selflessness and altruism. The skepticism increases against indications already surfacing that the rush to secure oil contracts has in fact been under way for months. On Thursday, French daily Libération ran an article and photo of a NTC document written and signed last March  just 17 days after Paris succeeded in its push to get UN resolution 1973 passed authorizing sanctions against Gaddafi and approving the air intervention to protect civilians from his advancing troops. According to Libération, the NTC document details “the oil accord agreed upon with France in exchange for the recognition of our Council”, which “attributes 35% of (Libya’s) total crude oil (business) to the French in exchange for its total and permanent support of our Council”. In March. Talk about naked short selling of futures.

In other words, despite all the other security, political, and humanitarian issues on the agenda of the Paris conference, considerable attention and discussion will inevitably directed to business considerations between the NTC and other participants. With military operations set to give way in the coming months to reconstruction and business, it was probably tempting to open the Paris conference with the cry, “Let the games begin”. Problem with that is, they already had.