(This article was first published on February 20, 2018. We decided to republish it for its importance and relevance today)

By Deborah K. Jones

Libyans must decide whether they will make the necessary compromises that will enable them to form that government and exercise sovereignty over their state.


Seven years following a popular uprising against dictatorial rule, Libya remains a conundrum that begs an uncomfortable question: is the post-Westphalian, sovereign nation-state model, whose sine qua non is a monopoly on the use of coercive force, attainable by – or even well-suited to – the geopolitically daunting, vast pastiche of coastal urban centers, tribal groupings and desert oases designated a political unity by the United Nations in 1949?

If so, how does modern Libya – whose historically autocratic leadership, both King Idriss and Ghaddafi, rejected the development of empowered, autonomous bureaucracies, staffed by politically literate civil servants, enabled in their insouciant embrace of “statelessness” first by a rentier economy of “leased occupation,” e.g. Wheelus AFB, and then by oil affluence.

That colonial experience engendered a national DNA that reflexively rejects any “hands on” security assistance – create the infrastructure and technocratic scaffolding needed to support and oversee a functioning state capable of doing what successful states do?

In short, how does Libya – not a “failed state” but never a state to begin with – establish the protective aegis of statehood, to include security, the rule of law, and a regulatory framework that provides safety and equitable access to its national wealth for its citizens, protects against corruption and creates the institutional linkages necessary for effective engagement with regional and international counterparts?

As a Libyan friend recently declared “‘before 2011 we were ruled by a man who claimed not to be in charge; now we are not ruled by many claiming to be in charge….”

If the Westphalian model is not workable, then what are the options, both for Libyans and others affected by its political turmoil, competing security organs and resultant criminality, lack of control of its borders and exploitation of Libya’s ungoverned space to prepare and launch terrorist acts against neighbors and beyond?

Can regional parties or the broader international community manage and contain this vast, strategically positioned territory whose hydrocarbon wealth remains critical to the economic wellbeing of its people and others, whose location presents both threat and opportunity, depending on one’s vantage point?

And if so, where lies a successful model for such “containment” and external management of Libya’s hydrocarbon production absent political stability within?

Is the best we can hope for an approach that disregards the aspirations of the Libyan people while external actors assert spheres of influence across a loosely associated federation, coordinating to deconflict their actions while pursuing disparate interests (energy security, migration, counter terrorism, disruptive religious extremism)? Toward what end? And for how long?

The reality is that no external state can afford an open-ended investment of “blood and treasure” for the sake of regional or energy security.

Historically, no entity, neither the Ottoman Empire nor Mussolini’s fascist regime, could sustain the resources and political will needed to occupy Libya from within or direct it from without.

From a practical and realistic standpoint, only political reconciliation and the painstaking (and admittedly painful) process of finally creating a state from statelessness will address the persistent needs of Libya’s people and its neighbors.

But perhaps some terms and definitions related to the nature of that statehood, and the question of sovereignty, should be revisited and revised in light of current realities.

To begin with, I would suggest that the definition of “coercive force” must be redefined to mean international solidarity and support for the UN political process, given the ongoing fragmentation of Libya’s national security forces and the persistent involvement of independent heavily armed militias.

This coordinated and jointly negotiated support admittedly cuts into the singular authority of the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative but also buttresses his efforts to contain and shape the activities of regional actors while supporting a political process that leads to ever greater sovereignty for the Libyan people, with greater control over their own lives and resources, while acknowledging the interest of others affected by Libya’s lack of stability/effective governance.

And any successful political process must include or account for the equitable distribution of Libya’s hydrocarbon wealth as well, without which there will be no security.

Absent a “national idea” or broadly shared Libyan identity, which will emerge as part of the political process, it is Libya’s hydrocarbons – linking her southern deserts to her Mediterranean ports – that provide a pretext for national unity, if properly and transparently exploited and distributed.

And for the oil to support national unity, the National Oil Company and the Central Bank of Libya must remain unitary and inviolate, with the support of the international community.

The Successful State

Successful states in the modern era have exercised sovereignty over their citizens and territory through the establishment of national armies, based on universal conscription, and broadly acceptable bureaucratic systems for the equitable – or at least rational or politically acceptable – distribution of national wealth, however measured, via commercial advantage, taxation, or a welfare-state model.

Historically, the state’s implicit monopoly over the use of legitimate coercive force has compelled adherence to agreed or imposed frameworks for civic interactions, social discourse, trade and commerce.

Following World War II, the gold standard for emerging democracies has been the state’s adherence to the rule of law.and support for the civil rights of its individual members. None of this pertains in Libya, nor has it ever.

When I arrived in Tripoli in June 2013, much of the wind had been taken out of the revolutionary sails of February 2011, and the horrific attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi had injected a degree of sobriety into the euphoria that accompanied the overthrow of the dictator.

The physics of coercive force had been undone in the Arab Republics of Tunis, Egypt, Yemen and Libya by the introduction of the mobile phone and social media, wherein the accelerant in the equation “F=ma” became the electron in the hands of the masses, leading to an overwhelming force (which thus far has proven more adept at tearing down than rebuilding).

Nonetheless the approach to “restoring” the Libyan state remained textbook: we would seek to strengthen the fledgling government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan (the third since the revolution and the highly acclaimed elections of July 2012) by developing a General Purpose Force that could overpower competing militias and establish rule of law.

My instructions prior to going out were essentially: “Don’t allow Libya to fall into the Syria column; after all, how hard can this be? 1.2 million barrels of oil a day for a population the size of the state of Massachusetts?!?

My unwelcome response was that giving a two-year old orphan in a bad neighborhood a trust fund without a wealth manager would not end well for the child.

And indeed when Zeidan’s government failed to deliver on economic benefits, and was perceived to be hugely corrupt, not only did it militate against the creation of any sort of national army but also brought him down following the March 2014 attempt by Ibrahim Jadhran and his renegade petroleum guards to pilfer a shipload of national oil.

The US government was instrumental in capturing and returning the oil to the government in Tripoli but the episode revealed deep political fissures within Libya – what I have elsewhere referred to as “the unfinished revolution” – and the involvement of external parties.

At that time the US proposed to the National Oil Company and then-minister of oil that they actively inform and educate the Libyan people regarding the exploration, exploitation, production and sale of Libyan oil wealth, which ironically remains the singular element with the potential to unify the country pending the necessary political evolution.

Our proposal was rejected. To his credit, current NOC Chair and longtime technocrat Engineer Mustafa Sanalla has acknowledged the need to develop a transparent approach to the production and equitable distribution of Libya’s oil wealth and has worked diligently to sustain production despite all hardships resulting from the ongoing political fragmentation and security disruptions.

Similar transparency is needed from the Central Bank. Most importantly, these two critically important bodies, the heart and lungs of any successful Libyan renewal, must remain unitary and the neutral organs of an authoritative Libyan government recognized nationally and internationally.


Ambassador Deborah K. Jones retired from the U.S. Department of State in November 2016 with the rank of Career Minister following 34 years of service. Her last assignment was as Deputy Commandant/International Affairs Advisor at the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy (formerly ICAF) of the National Defense University from October 2015 to November 2016, following her appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Libya from June 2013 until September 2015.



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