It would be fascinating if it didn’t involve US troops and America’s reputation. Almost unnoticed by the US media, players in the Eastern hemisphere are actively planning to enliven the Libya situation with negotiations, which we can assume will quickly be dubbed “peace talks.”
The African Union has been maneuvering to gets talks going since Saturday, the first day of coalition air strikes. AU members are solidly opposed to the intervention in Libya and hope to end it with a brokered solution to the civil war. Their plan is to launch negotiations on Friday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (where the AU headquarters is hosted) and bring together representatives of Qaddafi’s government and the self-proclaimed Transitional Government of the rebels. Other nations’ representatives are thought to be invited; presumably the US will have at least a routine diplomatic presence.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon seems to think representatives of Qaddafi and the opposition intend to be at this AU-sponsored meeting.
France and Britain, meanwhile, which urged implementation of the no-fly zone and ponied up the first forces for it, are now proposing to hold talks in London with representatives of the US and Arab, African, and European nations. This proposal is to produce a conference that starts on Tuesday, 29 March. The London conclave may not technically be the “steering committee” proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy for the direction of the military operations, but it is sure to be the focus of Western political decision-making about what this whole Libya thing really means.
(Note: I just heard Hillary Clinton state her intention of attending the London conference.)
Winston Churchill, who gave us the aphorism that “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war,” might or might not approve. The multi-venue approach is certainly disjointed – and reminiscent of the rival attempts by the West, the Communist bloc, and the Non-Aligned Movement to negotiate the same international problems back in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The London gathering seems fated to have difficulty getting things done; the AU meet in Addis Ababa is less predictable. The threat of Tuesday’s conference may put a fire under Qaddafi to work with the AU and achieve some kind of agreement with the opposition. It will clearly matter how the rebels are represented, and I would give the AU an edge over Western governments in knowing which opposition figures to cultivate for a successful outcome.
The AU wants to establish that Africa can police its own; there may be a particular advantage in the AU’s activism as well: the growing disenchantment of its members with the posture of Iran in Africa. Most AU governments tend to look with disfavor on transnational Islamism of any stripe, Sunni or Shi’a. That could well color their approach to the different groups represented in the Libyan insurgency, and with positive results.
It remains to be seen if the AU can either induce Qaddafi to go, or gain Western governments’ consent to his staying on a set of conditions. The AU’s incentive is strong to present a fait accompli to the West.
On the other hand, it’s not as clear that the attendees of the London conference have pressing incentives to secure a solution. Launching a military operation was, in a way, almost too easy for the various governments involved. Regarding “kinetic military action” as a routine thing – almost as a small thing – makes it less likely that these governments will feel urgency about bringing it to an end.
I wouldn’t count the AU out. It would be a significant diplomatic coup for it to trump the London conference with an executable solution. Qaddafi has a long history with the AU and a lot of friends in it; the Libyan opposition’s representatives may prefer to have a ceasefire and transition brokered by their choice of AU governments, rather than wait to see what the London conference does. The next few days will be worth sticking around for.