- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2011


The overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya is being called a model for cooperative regime change. Unless the United States and its allies work to shape the successor government in Tripoli, it may turn into a model for post-conflict failure.

Factional fighting is the price of successful revolution. Interim Libyan leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil is facing a growing split between secularists and moderate Muslims on one hand, and Islamic extremists on the other. Last week at a rally in Tripoli he acknowledged that Islamic law would be the basis for legislation in the new Libya, but he added that the government “will not accept any extremist ideology. We are a Muslim people, for a moderate Islam, and will stay on this road.”

Mr. Jalil is the type of Libyan leader the United States would like to see prevail. Rebel commander Abdelhakim Belhaj is not. He is a veteran of the mujahedeen struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan and former Taliban and al Qaeda associate. He was abducted from Malaysia by the CIA in 2004 and reportedly held for two weeks in a secret facility in Thailand before being handed back to the Gadhafi regime for interrogation and torture. He claims he no longer has ties to al Qaeda, but he is an extremist in his own right regardless of how close he is to his former friends.

The Obama administration is not overtly seeking to support any particular factions in Libya, an extension of his “lead from behind” strategy. The experience so far in Egypt has shown how damaging a U.S. leadership vacuum can be. There the White House has subtly promoted the fortunes of Islamist parties and been silent regarding the more pro-Western, secular groups. The administration trumpets the notion that Islamists gaining power by the ballot instead of the bullet is somehow a repudiation of the al Qaeda model. The plays into the hand of terrorist leaders like Ayman al-Zawahri, who hailed the downfall of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia as proof of the inexorable march of Islamism, even without violence.

Islamists are more than willing to dupe credulous westerners by telling them what they are eager to hear. The working assumption should be that every faction will seek opportunities to expand their power and increase their influence over whatever system emerges. Libya’s Islamist factions in particular have not been organizing, proselytizing and praying for Col. Gadhafi’s downfall to simply fold their tents and steal away in the night. Nor will they be content only to assume the role of “spiritual advisers,” which is the line the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used to subvert Iran’s revolution. In the new Libya the Islamists will play to win. It will be easier if they have no opponents.

The United States does not have the luxury of remaining neutral in this growing factional conflict. The United States and its NATO allies have spent billions of dollars to support the rebels, and it would all be wasted if we stood by while extremist elements seized control. Washington should use the $30 billion in frozen assets left over from the Gadhafi regime to encourage the creation of an acceptable permanent government in Tripoli. The State Department should also refuse to recognize a hard-line Islamist government. It’s time to take a stand promoting and protecting the nascent moderate, pro-Western political movements in Libya.

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