In Libya, Diplomacy Could Save Lives and the World Economy

Secretary of State Clinton defended the State Department budget in Congress this week by pointing out that diplomatic interventions can prevent expensive wars. Now the State Department has a spectacular opportunity to demonstrate Secretary Clinton's argument by example. It can support robust diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Libya without a further escalation in violence.

Pipe dream? The Wall Street Journal reports today that the price of oil fell on world markets when Al Jazeera reported that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had accepted a plan proposed by Venezuela that called for a multinational commission to mediate the conflict with rebel groups; Reuters reports that Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the peace plan was "under consideration."

Of course, this doesn't mean that peace is about to break out. For example, a leader of the rebels has reportedly rejected the call for peace.

But here are some facts that should create an opening for diplomacy: the armed rebels seem to have very little military prospect of taking Tripoli. The Libyan government seems to have very little military prospect of retaking most rebel-held territory.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Gates and other U.S. military leaders have quite rightly thrown cold water on the prospect of any significant Western military intervention, including a "no fly zone," which, as U.S. military leaders have rightly pointed out, would not simply be a matter of waving your magic wand and saying "no plane flying for you," but would require bombing Libya's extensive anti-aircraft missile capabilities in order to let U.S. planes own the sky. Such bombing, of course, would be likely to produce Libyan civilian casualties. And, as Secretary Gates has rightly pointed out, the last thing the U.S. needs right now is a war in another Muslim country. Moreover, there is no UN Security Council authorization for foreign military intervention, and very little prospect of one, and very little prospect of NATO agreeing to a significant military intervention without UN authorization, in part because a significant military intervention without UN authorization would be a blatant violation of the UN charter, something that people in Washington tend to forget when it is convenient to do so but people in European capitals care about on a more ongoing basis. And without NATO agreement, the U.S. can't use military bases in Europe for offensive action. Furthermore, the Arab League has stated its strong opposition to external military intervention. And even among the Libyan rebels and in rebel-held territory, there is division over calls for Western military intervention.

In addition, as U.S. military leaders have pointed out, the U.S. has not been able to confirm any reports of the Libyan use of air power against civilians. There are certainly credible reports of horrible human rights abuses, but they seem to have been carried out with guns rather than planes. If you want to stop that through military coercion, you can't do it with planes; you need ground troops. And no-one is seriously contemplating that.

Meanwhile, the conflict in Libya has produced a humanitarian crisis, with some 150,000 migrant workers fleeing the violence piling up at Libya's borders. Refugee accounts suggest attacks on civilians from both sides of the conflict, with black African civilian refugees saying they were targeted by rebel forces who assumed they were mercenaries, suggesting that Western efforts to arm the rebels could make the West complicit in human rights abuses.

Furthermore, it is far from obvious how much pressure international sanctions can bring to bear on the Libyan government in the short run. The Libyan government "can fall back on as much as $110 billion in foreign reserve holdings to fund its operations for perhaps months to come," the Washington Post reported this week.

Meanwhile, the continuing conflict in Libya is driving up the price of oil. AP reports today: "Gasoline has climbed more than 29 cents per gallon since the uprising in Libya began in the middle of February, costing Americans an extra $108 million per day to buy the same amount of fuel." A significant and sustained spike in the price of oil could stall economic recovery in the world, significantly increasing unemployment in the U.S. and worldwide.

In short: the world has many powerful incentives for acting to reduce the violence, and no plausible military option for doing so. That suggests that despite rhetoric to the contrary, there is an objective basis for diplomacy.

No doubt some will argue against efforts towards a political solution on the grounds that "there must be accountability" for Gadhafi and his lieutenants for alleged war crimes, and a consequence of political efforts to end the violence might be a political agreement that limits such accountability. But while the demand for accountability is a just demand, it is not all-trumping over other just demands; in particular, it is not all-trumping over the just demand for peace. To say that the demand for accountability must be all-trumping over the demand for peace, and that the conflict must continue until the demand for accountability for Libyan leaders is realized, would be to make a trade-off that privileges accountability over the lives of Libyan civilians, a trade-off that Westerners should be very hesitant to make. Moreover, for U.S. policy to insist on this trade-off, when we have never held any U.S. political leader legally accountable for the illegal invasion of Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, when no-one has suggested that efforts to do would lead to violence, wouldn't pass the international laugh test.

State Department, show us your stuff. Show Congress why diplomacy should be fully funded. Use your skills and contacts and levers to press for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis in Libya. Readers can add their voice to those pressing for a diplomatic solution here.

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.

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