An effort is being launched this week that may demonstrate whether European governments and the Libyan opposition can obviate the shedding of at least some blood, by leveraging oil exports to establish credibility and momentum for the rebel government. A resumption of oil exports from Eastern Libya is in progress, and Italy – long Muammar Qaddafi’s closest European partner in the oil and gas industry – has recognized the rebels’ interim government. France and Qatar have officially recognized it as well.
Reestablishing a functioning economy in the eastern portion of the country would, in theory, achieve more than merely bringing in revenue for the Libyan opposition. Besides promoting societal coalescence, it would extend commercial ties abroad for the rebel-held provinces. The routine contacts incident to the oil trade – banking, shipping, insurance – could become bellwethers of the rebel government’s viability and fiduciary standing. Qaddafi’s strategic position would weaken further as his former source of power was taken over by his rivals.
There are hazards, of course, in backing into nation-building this way. While Qaddafi is still armed and at large, he will want to resist an opposition takeover of the Libyan oil trade. His situation in that regard is not necessarily hopeless: the rebels hold the port cities in the east – largely by default – but the actual oil and gas reserves (and much of the industrial infrastructure) lie principally in the Libyan interior, where the opposition has no military capacity to seize or hold territory. There is a definite risk in giving Qaddafi a reason to fight for the oilfields while he is not yet entirely neutralized. But Qaddafi looks cornered at the moment; perhaps he can be neutralized by fiat, through a build-up of infrastructure and momentum for the Libyan opposition.
It would be dangerous to extrapolate success of this kind – if it is achieved – to situations elsewhere. Qaddafi’s Libya is unique: few dictatorships are as poorly integrated with their societies, and no other has such quiescent borders. Meanwhile, the indispensable factor in the current situation is the NATO airpower holding Qaddafi in check. Given those conditions, however, it’s not overly optimistic to hope that key setbacks in diplomacy and commerce will induce Qaddafi to fall.
It’s worth noting that these methods are hardly new. In one sense, they represent a reversion to the methods that organized much of Europe into nation-states in centuries past. The application of both power and principle (e.g., respect for national sovereignty) has been much more selective than not throughout human history; treating either quantity as a matter for bureaucratic management is only possible in a situation where orderly internationalism is enforced by a handful (or fewer) of great powers. One of the biggest “stories” of 2011 is what the US is not doing in that regard.