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Analysts Assess Future US-Libya Ties

While fighting continues in Libya, the international community is already looking ahead to a post-Gadhafi era. For now, U.S. officials are providing few specifics about a future American role in what Washington hopes will emerge as a stable, democratic nation.

Earlier this week, U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the expected end of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, but spoke in general terms about future U.S. engagement in the northern African nation. “The United States will be a friend and partner. We will join with allies and partners to continue the work of safeguarding the people of Libya,” he said.

At the State Department, a wait-and-see approach prevails. “Let us start with what the Libyans themselves feel is necessary, what they can achieve with their own resources. Let us wait and see what is on their wish list,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials acknowledge Libya’s Transitional National Council will need operating funds, especially given reduced oil output during the country’s civil war. “We want to start with getting the money that the TNC needs to maintain a strong and stable government, to provide for the humanitarian and security needs of its people. Then we will go on from there,” Nuland said.

Except for the initial phase of an air campaign to protect the Libyan people and degrade pro-Gadhafi forces, the United States has played a supporting role in international efforts to shape Libya’s future. A limited U.S. role is likely to continue, according to military analyst Richard Weitz of the Washington-based Hudson Institute during an interview with Alhurra TV.

“The U.S. is probably going to defer more to the other governments in the region, be they the Arab countries and the North African countries and the European countries. They are much closer,” Weitz said.

Even before anti-Gadhafi fighters advanced into Tripoli, U.S. officials and lawmakers discussed an eventual unfreezing of tens of billions of dollars in foreign assets held by the Gadhafi regime. According to Weitz, those assets, as well as any future U.S. aid, can help ensure that a post-Gadhafi Libya sticks to a democratic path.

“Give emergency assistance and aid now, but condition additional assistance on good behavior of the [new] regime,” Weitz said.

From the start of the rebellion, opponents of Moammar Gadhafi have reached out to the international community. “We hope that the world will understand us, deal with us, co-operate with us,” said Libyan opposition figure Mohamed Shebani.

With the United States already extricating itself from two other conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans show little appetite for increasing foreign expenditures in Libya or anywhere else. But U.S. assistance need not be financially draining in an oil-rich nation like Libya, according to national security analyst Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

“I am hopeful that, in fact, we will be able to see some American help. But let us also remember [that] Libya is rich. Libya is a small population base with several tens of billions of dollars in foreign reserves. So the issue here is less giving Libyans money,” O'Hanlon said.

O’Hanlon and other analysts say the coming months will be crucial for Libya’s future, and U.S. engagement will be an important ingredient in shaping that future.