Atlantic Council
March 18, 2014
In the early hours of Monday, March 17 in the Mediterranean, US Navy SEALS seized the tanker that just a few days earlier infamously loaded illicitly-obtained oil from an eastern oil field and escaped from Libyan authorities. Many have decried the move, authorized by President Barack Obama, as a breach of Libyan sovereignty and a case of flagrant meddling in Libya’s affairs. The truth is, however, that the United States acted just as it should have: in line with its declared support for protecting Libya’s transitional process.

Earlier this month, the international community gathered in Rome for the Friends of Libya conference, the discourse of which reflected an understanding that Libya’s myriad problems are rooted in political paralysis and underscored a commitment to supporting Libya’s democratization process. By extension, the international community has stated that it will not tolerate any violent or extra-legal vie for power by any entity in Libya. The takeover of the Morning Glory represents this statement manifested in action. The measure demonstrated two critical points: first, that the United States stands by Libya’s institutions and not with any one particular faction; and second, that it will not tolerate theft of the Libyan people’s right to their own natural resources by any group, no matter how legitimate it perceives itself to be.

Undoubtedly there will be a public relations battle over the justification of this intervention, which came at the request of Libyan authorities. Already the self-styled federalist leader Ibrahim Jadhran in a statement has asserted that the United States “blatantly violated international maritime laws” by boarding the vessel and that the shipment had been “Libyan oil destined for sale on behalf of all Libyan tribes.” Such rhetoric may very well be used to drum up criticism against the Other in an effort to bolster the federalists’ image as a defender of Libyan interests. Federalists will paint US action as evidence that the United States is picking sides in the struggle for Libya’s future.

The United States indeed took sides but not in the way it may more obviously seem. This intervention did not illustrate support for Tripoli (“the extremists” as Jahdran referred to them in his statement) over the Cyrenaicans. In fact, US action bolstered the authority of state institutions against rogue, centrifugal forces that wish to use violent and illegal means to advance their agendas and to undermine the nation-building process. As echoed in a recent State Department press briefing, US “support isn’t for one person, it’s not for one party, it’s for a process, and we want to keep working with Libya to help them move forward with this admittedly very difficult transition.” The sentiment was in response to the General National Congress’ removal of now former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, but it applies holistically to the US response to the latest developments in Libya.

The prevention of this rogue operation to illicitly acquire wealth at the expense of the Libyan people should be seen as a major success in the fight against fragmentation and illegality and not as a meddling into Libya’s internal affairs. The security situation in Libya is chaotic as disparate militias, each with political allies, compete for power. The international training program underway to build up a national security apparatus will take time, and the only reason that no group has succeeded in a violent takeover is: one, that no single militia has the strength necessary to do so; and two, militia groups realize that the Libyan citizenry will not tolerate such blatant extra-legal measures that would risk marginalizing the country again with new sanctions and embargos. From the Rome conference declarations to the more peripheral mediums of support such as the educational exchange programs, the international community has made clear its support for the democratic transition and its rejection of extra-legal efforts to derail the transition against the will of the people. In accordance with this principle, the seizure of the oil vessel was not a pushback against federalism or in support of Tripolitania but a legitimate step toward the restoration of law and order.

If the enfeebled Libyan government ever doubted whether it had global support behind it, the events of the last twenty-four to forty-eight hours offer a resounding answer in the affirmative. At this point, from its renewed position of strength, Libyan authorities should begin to negotiate the suspension of the oil blockades by the rebels, supported by sufficient military forces to face them should they resist. There is evidence of this already happening. Although federalist methods remain unjustified and unpopular, many still share the demand for a more equitable redistribution of resources to the eastern part of the country. Negotiations should address these longstanding grievances rooted in the repressive Qaddafi era. Such confidence-building measures must be followed by new legislative elections in the summer to establish a legislature that would possess the necessary legitimacy to undertake important reforms. 

With the strength of the international community behind it and an engaged public hungry for leadership, the Libyan government must undertake the process of reestablishing law and order in the country. Rule of law is a critical precondition to any form of decentralization, which is requested by a large segment of the population (as opposed to federalism). If Tripoli remains weak, any request for the devolution of power will become de facto secession and an undermining of the Libyan national project.

Karim Mezran is resident senior fellow with the Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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