A Rejoinder to Ignatius on Libya

Should the West start putting boots on the ground to establish law and order in Libya to help the teetering government of Ali Zeidan train a general purpose force that later could maintain security in the North African country?

That’s what David Ignatius seems to be suggesting in his opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, which concludes with a comment from Karim Mezran, a Libyan political scientist and senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, who says Libya is so fragile now that NATO may have to send in its own security forces to keep order until the long-delayed training program is ready.

Ignatius apportions blame between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans for the U.S. failing to take some simple steps that “might have limited the country’s descent toward anarchy. But Libya became so toxic after the Benghazi attack that the United States has been slow to provide help.”

But more germane are the simple steps that Libyans themselves have failed to take since the ousting of Col. Muammar Gaddafi — and no amount of U.S. or Western assistance can make up for them. The original source of the country’s instability and lawlessness rests with Libyan leaders themselves.

In the immediate weeks and months after the toppling of Gaddafi, the National Transitional Council blocked the enactment of security plans for the formation of a new national army through the demobilization of militias and re-training of rebel fighters. The various factions did so in order to retain their power and clout.  This was one of the reasons one of Libya’s most able politicians, Mahmoud Jibril, resigned from the NTC.

And ever since then whenever a serious security plan has been proposed the various political and militia factions have sabotaged it, reluctant to accede to a change that would diminish their influence. All too often the militias are seen by reporters as somehow disconnected from politics – but they aren’t: political faction and militias work often hand-in-glove, something I have written about for the Jamestown Foundation among others.

Second, militiamen have also been reluctant to integrate into fledgling armed forces, preferring instead to take a government salary and remain under command of their militia leaders and to have few demands placed on them. They have lacked discipline: in the summer of 2012 dozens of police trainees demanded to be returned to Libya from training in Jordan because they found what was being asked of them too onerous – they complained among other things that they had to get up early in the morning. Others rioted in Jordan because of delays in their return home two days after completing a three-month course.

Third, the Zeidan government and any replacement will remain weak for as long as ordinary Libyans fail to rally round. More than a year ago Jibril told me he feared for Libya for as long as ordinary Libyans fail to protest in the streets in large numbers in support of government efforts to introduce security. I heard an echo of that the other day from a former political exile and onetime rebel leader Abdul Rahman El Mansouri. He told me last week of his frustration at the failure of Libyans to get fed up with what is going on and make clear their anger with politicians and militias alike.

In the end the descent into anarchy is not a Washington responsibility but a Libyan one, and it isn’t American inattention that is a worry but Libyan inattention. There are – and have been for weeks – Western military training teams around. There is a 100-strong EU border enforcement advisory team in Tripoli, for example. None of them are doing much, unable to leave compounds and hotels. It is up to ordinary Libyans to seize the opportunities presented by the ousting of Gaddafi. The West can’t win the future for them.

And putting NATO troops on the ground in Libya isn’t going to help. The appearance of Western troops I suspect would inflame problems and prompt a violent reaction from militant Islamists and foreign jihadists.

Will A Better But Not Yet Good Economy Safe Obama?

Democrats hope in a tight election race that marginal improvements in the economy will persuade voters to back their man over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. With the exception of the parties clashing over Libya, and whether the administration was culpable by neglect in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans during the September storming of the American consulate in Benghazi, the election has been dominated by the state of the US economy.

The culture wars of the past have dimmed in significance this year. Even the divisive issues of abortion and immigration have faded. With Obama’s fate likely tied to how voters judge his record in restoring economic growth, Democrats have been burnishing any good economic news coming their way. Read my take on this in the Daily Mail.

Far From Over

Interesting analysis in Politico today suggesting that the House race is far from over. The suggestion is that everything has to break right for the GOP to secure the lower chamber. The Democrats still have a chance but it will depend on three factors, I suspect:

* Can the White House reframe the mid-terms into not just being a referendum on Obama and a more even contest on what the GOP is or is not offering?

* While Tea Party enthusiasm can drive conservatives to the polls will it also turn off independent and swing voters and drive them into the hands of the Democrats?

* Will Tea Party involvement energize the Democrat base?

Boehner the Ogre?

What on earth are White House strategists thinking by seizing on the GOP”s House leader, John Boehner, as the Republican scary pin-up to attack ahead of the mid-term elections? The Republican Minority Leader may not be to everybody’s taste but he is “a hard man to demonize,” as The Economist has pointed out. He is a mild-mannered country-club-type Republican, who even back in the mid nineties when he aligned with Newt Gingrich wasn’t one of the trusted members of the praetorian guard.

Convivial and clubby, Boehner is sociable with Democrats in the Capitol Hill watering holes. His style is not dissimilar from Bob Dole’s, another Midwestern conservative able and willing when circumstances demanded to make deals across party lines. In some ways Boehner comes across as your dad’s genial brother, ready with a crack and the offer of a drink and a cigarette. He’s also not that well-known nationally. So painting him as the ogre moderate Republicans, centrists or independents should flee from at the polling booths is unlikely to secure the Democrats much advantage.

And if the the GOP does capture the House, as opinion polls suggest consistently the party will, then Boehner is someone the Whte House will need to be able to negoiate with – that is if there isn’t going to be another nineties-style government shut-down.

Targeting Boehner strikes me as another major misstep by the White House when it comes to strategy and thinking things through. Strategic and communication errors have marked this administration almost from the start. In the first summer of this administration, President Obama and senior aides neglected to sell the health-care reform – something that still hasn’t been sold to most Americans.

From the beginning they failed to focus on the economy. No FDR-style “fireside chats,” no trying to manage expectations and to explain that recovery from the financial crisis would not be speedy (as is the case always from recessions caused by financial crashes), no preparing Americans for the long haul and no cheering of them up.

Only belatedly has the President and his senior aides started to talk about the economy. Too little and too late.

So who should the White House target? Surely, they should be highlighting the civil war underway in the GOP, pitching Republican moderates and a new generation of Tea Party-aligned ideologues. Boehner is a small-government conservative while a lot of the likely GOP freshmen are more “no-government” and this, from a strategic point-of-view, is surely what the White House should be emphasizing. Earlier this week, I argued that the GOP primary results were a godsend for the White House and Democrats but they seem to want to throw away what the Republicans give them.