Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Facing Questions on Migrants, Italy’s Renzi Points to Libyan Turmoil
By Steven Mufson
April 22 at 11:25 AM

If there was one sour note to the White House visit by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, it was on the subject of Libya and the boatloads of migrants fleeing to Italy’s shores.

On Friday, two days before hundreds drowned in a single sinking, Renzi sidestepped questions about how Italy was handling the migrant flotilla, saying that the solution lies with reconciliation of the warring tribes that have made Libya so dangerous that people are risking their lives to escape.

But Renzi also said that the fault lies with the foreign powers that had helped overthrow Libyan revolutionary Pan-Africanist leader Moammar Gaddafi. “If you decide to move to remove a dictator — and he was a terrible dictator — you must think about, step by step, what institutional structures will remain,” he said in an interview at The Washington Post on Friday.

Yes, he was pointing fingers. One Italian official in Washington said last week that Renzi was upset about the leading role that France, under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Qatar played in overthrowing Gaddafi and leaving behind a humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. role? In early 2011, the United States was still bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq; there was little appetite for sending U.S. troops to North Africa. A New Yorker article published then quoted an unnamed administration official describing President Obama’s approach to foreign policy as “leading from behind,” a phrase Republicans seized upon to charge the president with abdicating international leadership and handing it to European and Middle Eastern nations that had rallied to topple Gaddafi.

However, as Libya unraveled and Gaddafi seemed on the verge of defeating and capturing large numbers of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) trained and financed counter-revolutionaries in Benghazi, the United States lobbied the U.N. Security Council to support a NATO operation to protect the city. On March 28, 2011, at the National Defense University, Obama defended the U.S. role in a broad coalition providing air cover for rebels. He recalled the international community’s failure to act promptly in Bosnia in the 1990s, and he was said to fear that Benghazi would yield a massacre similar to the slaughter of Muslims in the city of Srebrenica during the Bosnian War.

Soon, the bombing of Gaddafi’s forces by NATO fighter planes helped turn the tide. Six months later, Gaddafi was killed in Sirte. His death seemed an exclamation point in the long Arab Spring.

But like the victory over Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the victory over Gaddafi opened a new sort of Pandora’s box. Fighting continues in Libya, with various militia factions controlling different parts of the country. Oil and natural gas production has dried up because of fighting. Human Rights Watch has reported about 400,000 people internally displaced and, in the first nine months of 2014, the assassination of 250, including judges, journalists, activists and imams.

Back in 2011, Obama foresaw challenges for a post-Gaddafi Libya but said they were not ones the United States would solve. He said “40 years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions.” But that, he added, “will be a task for the international community and — more importantly — a task for the Libyan people themselves.”

Not everyone agreed at the time. “If you’re going to overthrow Gaddafi, a reasonable policy goal, you have to plan and prepare for transition, and that would have required an international stabilization force,” said Bruce Jones, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

That force could have disarmed the militias and cleared space for domestic institutions, boosted by oil revenue, to take root. But, Jones said, the United States was dealing with its “hangover” from Iraq and Afghanistan, fearful about being sucked into an endless nation-building project. The British and French were not interested, either.

As Obama said back then, “We went down that road in Iraq.” He added, “That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”

Now many ordinary Libyans are voting with their oars. The boat that capsized Sunday, killing hundreds of migrants, only added to the already high death toll. Hence the questions for Renzi last week.

“On the situation of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, I think the Mediterranean is a sea and not a cemetery,” Renzi said. “But please allow me to be very clear: Peace in Libya, either the tribes do this or no one is going to do this, no one is going to achieve this. The only way to reach peace is that the tribes finally accept that they’re going to go toward stabilization and peace.”

If that fails, he added, Italy would intercept boats at sea, but he said “it is not easy to block hundreds and thousands of desperate men and women fleeing because of war.”

[Italy ran an operation that saved thousands of migrants. Why did it stop?]

Jones cautioned, however, that “it’s an oversimplification to say that stabilizing Libya would stop the tide of migrants into Europe. Most are not Libyans. Libya is a transit country.” Migrants were streaming into Europe even before Gaddafi’s fall.

Italy has old ties with Libya, parts of which it first colonized in 1910. The Italian oil giant ENI, about 30 percent owned by the Italian government, has been the biggest oil and gas producer in Libya for decades and has invested tens of billions of dollars. Italy was the biggest market for that oil and gas.

But Renzi wants Europe especially, and the United States, to share responsibility for repairing Libya. “The only problem with the rest of Europe is it doesn’t look to the south,” he said at The Post. He said he had discussed the crisis with Obama.

Asked whether he would be willing to send Italian peacekeepers to Libya, Renzi said that was impossible. “Peacekeeping is for keeping the peace, and today it is not possible to find peace. There is not peace, so it is impossible to keep the peace,” he said.

While in Washington, Renzi, a former mayor of Florence, visited the National Gallery of Art to see an exhibition of works by the Italian Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo. One painting shows the legend of the rescue of the princess Andromeda, who had been offered as a sacrifice to a sea monster. The warrior Perseus flew in on winged sandals, rescued and wed the maiden. Europe could use more warriors like Perseus to snatch migrants from the monsters of the Mediterranean sea.

Steven Mufson covers the White House. Since joining The Post, he has covered economics, China, foreign policy and energy.

No comments: