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The United States Must Abandon the Strongman Myth in Libya

It is often said that the United States must forego promoting democracy or caring about human rights abroad because the threat of instability is overriding. Democracy is seen as incompatible with urgent security concerns, and thus a hard choice must be made, by which it is usually meant democracy must be disregarded. This strongman myth is not unique to the Middle East, but it is where it is typically invoked. This cliche insists that authoritarianism breeds stability, and concludes that the United States should opt for strongmen as opposed to precipitating their fall. Now, Libya is the latest opportunity to dispense with the faulty logic of the strongman myth.

The use of poorly applied examples has real risks, as there are concrete pitches to reestablish strongman rule over Libya. A debate about how to package the fractured country together in the aftermath of the civil strife that followed the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi is playing out among major powers. Within the French government, the idea that strongmen are necessary for countries like Libya has become predominant, with its corresponding conclusion that democracy and human rights are dispensable. In the east of Libya, the warlord Khalifa Haftar has committed human rights abuses but pitches himself as a new leader for all of Libya. Foreign backers see in him a parallel to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and his rise and military campaigns can be traced to outside support seeking to counteract other, less authoritarian actors within Libya. Other Western diplomats have touted Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, as a supposedly more reform-inclined replacement. While a tenuous ceasefire prevails in Libya, the political landscape remains unsettled and fragile. Foreign evaluations retain their potency in potentially determining Libya’s future.

The strongman concept’s most basic problem is asserting that authoritarian governance promotes stability at all. Proponents usually cite previous examples from the region to demonstrate authoritarian stability. But which autocrats, and when? Qaddafi himself was hardly effective at being a counterterrorism partner. His involvement with terrorist plots against Western targets testifies to that. In North Africa, his record is no better. His domestic repression inspired protestors and military personnel to resist his slaughter and led to the war from which Libya still suffers. Qaddafi presided over a domestically stable Libya only so long as its people accepted inhumanity. Such stability is not a sustainable bet.

Critics uphold that the United States has already tried to build democracy in Libya at the expense of stability, but this is a myth. Despite assertions otherwise, the 2011 intervention was not premised on creating a democratic Libya. It was sold as preventing mass slaughter and bringing a quicker end to the war. On these merits, it succeeded. The end of Qaddafi’s regime led to a power vacuum, but a grassroots revolution ultimately brought this downfall, not a Western campaign. Lasting instability was baked in before NATO began bombing. Staying out of Libya would not have made the situation more stable. If there was a cause of instability in Libya, it was decades of repression that provoked a revolution and war. If there is a good strategy to mitigate instability, it is not investing in another repressive regime.

The creeping impression among Western diplomats to allow or even assist a new strongman in Libya could serve to exacerbate human rights abuses. Haftar’s forces have perpetrated human rights abuses and there is little reason to think such behavior will cease. Members of Qaddafi’s family and his old regime have no credibility to argue they will conduct themselves much better. They are complicit in previous crimes and would receive little political acceptance from veterans of Libya’s revolution. Regardless, courting serial violators of human rights offers little hope of decreasing future security threats. Such behavior has provoked defensive violence before. The United States should resist the temptation of the strongman myth and instead promote a more sustainable approach for stability.

Critics can pose a more sophisticated version of the argument that acknowledges that strongmen breed instability, but still contend that extreme circumstances require picking an autocrat. This modified proposition asserts that an immediate reality has such terrible consequences that strongman rule must be allowed, if not facilitated. Terrorism and migration are pressing issues. Fed up with instability, the temptation grows to solve these problems quickly. But embracing a strongman does not make problems go away. Tripoli has already shown it can resist a military assault from Haftar. And the problems that drive outward migration and make room for terrorists will not cease if an authoritarian government lacking legitimacy from the Libyan population tries to terminate other political forces. Many console nonintervention as a wise course. There is a valid argument to be had about 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 policy to make Libya into a democracy in 2011. But many Libyans are struggling for exactly that, and they do not deserve to have international actors trod them down because they are found inconvenient.

The temptation to back an autocrat is real and threatens to end the best attempt at long-term stability and democratic governance for Libya. It is not only true of the French doubling-down on the concept under Emmanuel Macron. It is expressed among U.S. officials as well, who argue former regime players need to return to the scene. Moral concerns aside, this trend is dangerous. There are active pitches for terrible wannabe tyrants to assume the status as a new Qaddafi or a new Saddam Hussein. Libya has made ending this false choice imperative. In Libya, it is easier than elsewhere to do so. There is a legitimate, UN-backed government that faces ongoing challenges to its rule and popular credibility. The geopolitics of the eastern Mediterranean are complex, but U.S. partners such as France have acted to undermine that government. The choice must be made to proactively gird the legitimate government in its disputes with rivals.

If this can be done, international actors can assist the Libyans in power-sharing among the country’s factions. A polarizing and autocratic figure does not help this effort. But a less violent, more integrated Libya would hemorrhage less instability abroad while better fulfilling the needs of its own people. In U.S. foreign policy more broadly, there are complex debates to be had about whether and how to support foreign fighters, accommodate competing major powers, and protect vulnerable populations. These are hard questions. The debate around them would be more productive if it were shed of cliches and false premises about strongmen. Libya provides an excellent opportunity to do so.