A Libyan Ceasefire: What It Would Take

The Libyan conflict continues. The UN has proposed a ceasefire. NATO and the Libyan rebels are dubious: Gaddafi is still there, after all, and is not yet defeated. He could easily take advantage of a ceasefire to stage a comeback. The Economist interprets an announcement by Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague as meaning that Britain may be open to reconsidering the idea of a ceasefire. Far from looking for a quick exit, Hague asserts that Britain is in it for the long haul.

All of this is actually good news. It seems that everyone's heads are in the right place (except perhaps for the UN's, but this is no news -- at least its heart seems to be in the right place). A ceasefire agreement is possible, and, unless we're ready for a long siege of Tripoli with possible ground troop involvement and loads of casualties, it may be the only realistic way this can all end.  But still: this cannot be cut-and-run, which is why Hague's assurances to the contrary are comforting.

Libya is not Iraq or Afghanistan. NATO is providing air support for a native rebellion. Time is on the coalition's side, not Gaddafi's (I have pointed out previously that time is on the Taliban's side, which is why I have little faith in a positive outcome for Afghanistan). NATO must make use of both of these aspects. Any ceasefire must be on terms decided by the coalition. In particular, these terms must be decided by Libya's National Transitional Council, as representatives, however tentative, of the Libyan people. They must set the guidelines by which this can happen. Compromise may happen in other areas, but these principles are not up for negotiation.

For example, one stipulation would surely be that Gaddafi is removed a long way from any power. A second one, that the West must strongly support for reasons of morality and political credibility, is that Libya holds elections and builds institutions like independent courts all that. The areas where compromise is possible: pardoning Gaddafi and going easy on current members of his regime. Those closest to him must not be allowed near power. Ones lower down may need to be left on for practical reasons -- only they may have experience in civil service.

It sounds awful to let Gaddafi get away scot-free, but let's not lose sight of the goal: getting him out of power and freeing up Libya for a brighter future. If Gaddafi can be enticed to give up the fight, this will save hundreds, possibly thousands of lives through reduced fighting, as well as lots of money, time, and Western leaders' political capital.

And what if Gaddafi doesn't accept? As I said: time is not on his side. Don't negotiate further. Return to the current war of attrition, and wait for him to come around or for the regime to utterly collapse around him. This is not as nice as a quicker ceasefire, but it is the only option. All in all, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about Libya, at least over the medium term. Kind of refreshing after ages of Middle Eastern quagmire.


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