It is often said that the United States must give up promoting democracy or caring about human rights abroad because the threat of instability is paramount. Democracy is seen as incompatible with urgent security concerns, and therefore a difficult choice must be made, by which it is generally meant that democracy should be ignored. This strongman myth is not unique to the Middle East, but it is here that it is usually invoked. This cliché insists that authoritarianism breeds stability and concludes that the United States should opt for strong men rather than precipitate its downfall. Now Libya is the last opportunity to do without the faulty logic of the strongman myth.
The use of poorly applied examples carries real risks, as there are concrete arguments to re-establish strongman rule over Libya. A debate on how to regroup the fractured country following the civil war that followed the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi is unfolding among the great powers. Within the French government, the idea that strongmen are needed for countries like Libya has become predominant, with its corresponding conclusion that democracy and human rights are dispensable. In eastern Libya, warlord Khalifa Haftar has committed human rights abuses but presents himself as a new leader for all of Libya. Foreign donors see in him a parallel with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and his rise and military campaigns can be attributed to outside support seeking to thwart other less authoritarian actors in Libya. Other Western diplomats have praised Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, as a replacement supposedly more inclined to reform. As a tenuous ceasefire prevails in Libya, the political landscape remains unstable and fragile. Foreign assessments retain their power to potentially determine Libya’s future.
The most fundamental problem with the concept of the strong man is that authoritarian governance promotes stability. Supporters typically cite earlier examples from the region to demonstrate authoritarian stability. But which autocrats, and when? Gaddafi himself was hardly effective in being a counterterrorism partner. His involvement in terrorist plots against Western targets bears witness to this. In North Africa, its record is no better. His internal repression inspired protesters and military personnel to resist his massacre and led to the war from which Libya still suffers. Gaddafi only presided over an internally stable Libya as long as his people accepted inhumanity. Such stability is not a sustainable bet.
Critics argue that the United States has already tried to build democracy in Libya at the expense of stability, but that’s a myth. Despite claims to the contrary, the 2011 intervention was not based on the creation of a democratic Libya. It has been sold as preventing mass killings and ending the war more quickly. On these merits he succeeded. The end of Gaddafi’s regime led to a power vacuum, but a popular revolution ultimately brought about this downfall, not a Western campaign. Long-lasting instability set in before NATO began to bombard. Staying out of Libya would not have made the situation more stable. If there has been a cause of instability in Libya, decades of repression have sparked a revolution and a war. If there is a good strategy to alleviate instability, it is not to invest in another repressive regime.
The creeping impression among Western diplomats that they authorize or even help a new strongman in Libya could serve to exacerbate human rights violations. Haftar’s forces have perpetrated human rights violations and there is little reason to believe that such behavior will cease. Family members of Gaddafi and his former regime have no credibility to claim that they will behave much better. They are complicit in previous crimes and are said to have little political acceptance among veterans of the Libyan revolution. Either way, wooing serial human rights violators offers little hope of reducing future security threats. Such behavior has already provoked defensive violence. The United States should resist the temptation of the strong man myth and instead promote a more sustainable approach to stability.
Critics may come up with a more sophisticated version of the argument which recognizes that strong men breed instability, but still argue that extreme circumstances call for choosing an autocrat. This amended proposition asserts that immediate reality has such dire consequences that strongman rule must be permitted, if not facilitated. Terrorism and migration are urgent problems. Fed up with instability, the temptation grows to resolve these problems quickly. But kissing a strong man doesn’t make problems go away. Tripoli has already shown he can withstand a military assault from Haftar. And the problems that lead to emigration and make room for terrorists will not end if an authoritarian government lacking legitimacy on the part of the Libyan people attempts to put an end to other political forces. Many console non-intervention as a wise lesson. There is a valid argument as to whether inactivity is the appropriate response to a tragic situation. But it is clear from public and private discussions that this is not what many have in mind. It was not a policy to make Libya a democracy in 2011. But many Libyans are fighting for it, and they do not deserve to be trampled on by international actors because they are deemed inconvenient.
The temptation to support an autocrat is real and threatens to end Libya’s best attempt at long-term stability and democratic governance. This is not only true of the French doubling of the concept under Emmanuel Macron. This is also expressed among US officials, who argue that former regime actors must return to the scene. Beyond moral concerns, this trend is dangerous. There are active arguments for terrible aspiring tyrants to assume the status of new Gaddafi or new Saddam Hussein. Libya has made it imperative to end this false choice. In Libya, it’s easier than elsewhere to do it. There is a legitimate government backed by the UN that faces ongoing challenges to its power and popular credibility. the the geopolitics of the eastern Mediterranean is complex, but American partners like France have acted to undermine this government. The choice must be made to proactively surround the legitimate government in its disputes with its rivals.
If it can be done, international actors can help Libyans share power between factions in the country. A polarizing and autocratic figure does not help in this effort. But a less violent and more integrated Libya would lead to less instability abroad while better meeting the needs of its own people. In American foreign policy in general, there are complex debates to be had over whether and how to support foreign fighters, accommodate competing great powers, and protect vulnerable populations. These are tough questions. The debate around them would be more productive if it got rid of clichés and false premises about strong men. Libya offers an excellent opportunity to do so.
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