Why Is Libya’s Transitional Council Thumbing Its Nose at the ICC?

What better way to welcome a new blogger to the blogosphere than to rebut his inaugural argument?

In the first substantive post on his promising new Causal Loop blog, Georgetown University political-science student Anton Strezhnev applies game theory to present-day Libya to try to explain why that country’s National Transitional Council (NTC) is not cooperating fully with the International Criminal Court (ICC). Strezhnev focuses on the NTC’s welcoming of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, for whom the ICC has issued an arrest warrant, but the Council is arguably failing to cooperate with the ICC by dragging its feet on a trial for Saif Ghaddafi as well. Strezhnev starts with a nice recapitulation of one body of relevant theory:

Political science theory suggests that a state with a recent history of civil war that has a strong commitment to rule-of-law will be less likely to bind itself to the ICC. The explanation lies in the intersection between the role of [international organizations] and Libyan domestic political imperatives. Leaders are very careful about surrendering state sovereignty to international organizations and only do so when there is a clear political benefit. Credible commitment or “hand-tying” theories of international institutions emphasize the advantages of being restrained by an external actor. Governments may want to convince domestic audiences that they will refrain from a particular behavior but lack the ability to make that commitment believable. International agreements provide a means of signalling credibility since enforcement is no longer in the hands of the (untrustworthy) government.

He then applies this theory to the Libyan case as follows:

If the commitment explanation for state behavior is accurate, then the NTC’s tenuous relationship with the International Criminal Court may suggest a belief by Libyan transitional leaders that their domestic reforms are a sufficient signal that they will not return to Gaddafi-style repression. Given the NTC’s professed goal of establishing democratic and accountable institutions, one would expect Libya to be less likely to turn to the ICC as a post-civil war commitment mechanism, given that the sovereignty costs are still high, but the signalling benefits are not uniquely advantageous. However, the task of disarming militias and integrating fighters remains daunting and if not done properly, could increase the risk of renewed violence.  Indeed, if the NTC begins to lack credibility in the eyes of some factions, then it may start looking outward to international organizations as a means of reassurance.

Strezhnev concisely summarizes an important theory, but I think the Libyan case actually illustrate the limits of this theory rather than its validity. From the stories I’ve read, I get the sense that the NTC’s political commitments are widely regarded as dubious at best. Libya’s transitional government was born with a credibility problem, and that problem hasn’t gotten much better since Ghaddafi’s forces were finally defeated. If anything, the NTC’s credibility seems to have eroded in recent weeks, because the council is now expected to actually govern, and so far, it has proved unable to do so. As the International Crisis Group summarized in a December 2011 report on the Libya transition,

The NTC’s desire to bring the militias under central control is wholly understandable; to build a stable Libya, it also is necessary. But obstacles are great. By now, [the militias] have developed vested interests they will be loath to relinquish. They also have become increasingly entrenched…They also have advantages that the NTC and the National Army lack, notably superior local knowledge and connections, relatively strong leaderships and revolutionary legitimacy. In contrast, the NTC has had to struggle with internal divisions, a credibility deficit and questions surrounding its effectiveness. But the heart of the matter is political. The security landscape’s fragmentation – and militias’ unwillingness to give up arms – reflects distrust and uncertainty regarding who has the legitimacy to lead during the transition.

This does not sound to me like a body exuding the kind of credibility Strezhnev inferred from its decision to host Bashir.

To understand why the transitional council is still keeping the ICC at arm’s length, I think we need to think about the multiple games it’s trying to play at one time. The locus classicus on the subject is George Tsebelis’ Nested Games, in which the “games” in question are the kinds of strategic interactions Strezhnev describes. As Tsebelis puts it (p. 7),

If, with adequate information, an actor’s choices appear to be suboptimal, it is because the observer’s perspective is incomplete. The observer focuses attention on only one game, but the actor is involved in a whole network of games–what I call nested games. What appears suboptimal from the perspective of only one game is in fact optimal when the whole network of games is considered.

It would be a stretch to describe anything the NTC has done so far as “optimal,” but I think the metaphor of nested games is very useful here. The NTC wants and needs some things from the states that have endorsed the ICC, but it also wants and needs things from the militias that emerged during the civil war, and from neighbors like Sudan. Moreover, the members of the NTC are themselves presumably engaged in lots of internal haggling. In other words, the transitional government is simultaneously engaged in bargaining at four levels–internal, domestic, regional, and global–and actions that look like the prudent play on one of those levels will often look wrong-headed on others.

The decision to welcome Bashir is a great case in point. To backers of the ICC, Bashir’s visit seems like a thumb in their eye, but as Multilateralist blogger David Bosco points out in a recent post, the NTC’s decision to welcome the Sudanese president “is utterly unsurprising” in regional context.

As a weak player in a rough neighborhood, Libya’s new authorities need the support of powerful states as the move forward. They don’t need the ICC anymore (if they ever did); the court is now a nettlesome complication. So Libya will happily endure blistering press releases from the human rights community in order to cement relations with a rich and powerful neighbor. The only thing that would change that equation is the insistence of other powerful states that there would be serious consequences for welcoming the Sudanese president. Bashir’s arrival suggests that message either was not sent–or was not received.

In the case of Saif Ghaddafi, the domestic game seems to be the crucial one. When rebels from Zintan captured the son of the deposed dictator was captured in November, they initially refused to hand him over to the NTC, and reports (like this one) suggested that the high-profile prisoner was being used “as a bargaining chip in the contest between rival groups for power in the new Libya.” Seen from this perspective, the NTC’s recalcitrance looks less like a marker of the council’s domestic credibility than a function of its inherent weakness.

Whatever the exact sources of the NTC’s decisions may be, it’s clear that the ICC’s arrest warrant for President Bashir and its demand to host the trial of Saif Ghaddafi have become points of contention in all of the political games the NTC is attempting to play, and incentives at the various levels seems to be pulling the council in different directions. Even if it could make up its own mind, the NTC doesn’t yet have the power to pick a winner, and arresting Bashir or trying to force a handover of Saif before it’s capable of doing so could shred its already-gossamer authority.

Libya’s Chicken-and-Egg Problem

Just over a week ago, Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) declared the country liberated and the transition to a post-Gaddafi state officially underway. This week, we’ve started to see the first of what I expect will be a raft of stories about tensions and conflict among the groups over whom the TNC is claiming authority. Here’s the opening to one from the Washington Post:

Libya has emerged from its civil war with more than 300 militias and no political consensus on forming a national army, raising concerns that irregular, gun-toting groups could become entrenched and pose a long-term challenge to the government, officials here said. On Monday, Libyan leaders began to establish a new interim government with the authority to create the armed forces, choosing the technocratic Abdurrahim el-Keib as prime minister. But the militiamen who won the eight-month war have made it clear that they will not submit meekly to the new civilian authorities.

In the Guardian, we hear from a reporter who tagged along with rebel militias to Abu Salim, a neighborhood in Tripoli, about the mistrust among those militias:

The plan was simple, Essam said. Gaddafi had distributed a lot of guns to the people of this neighbourhood. The rebels would go from house to house, search for weapons and detain wanted fugitives. Three units were to conduct this operation, one from Misrata, one from Essam’s Freemen of Libya unit, and the local rebel military council of Abu Salim. The Misratans, experienced and well-equipped, had a reputation as ruthless fighters who didn’t trust anyone else. Essam’s unit respected them but didn’t really like them, and both the Misratans and the Freemen mistrusted the local rebels of Abu Salim. “They became rebels after Tripoli was liberated,” said one of Essam’s men, smirking.

In some cases, the mistrust has erupted into open fighting. Here’s a snippet from today’s Telegraph:

Two people died from bullet wounds and at least seven fighters were injured during a battle that started when militia from the town of Zintan were stopped by guards from the Tripoli Brigade from entering the city’s Central Hospital to kill a patient.

These stories illustrate the massive governance problem Libya now confronts. Libya is a collapsed state. It has no functioning central authority. The TNC has proclaimed itself to be the country’s national government, and the international community has endorsed that claim, but that claim is only now starting to get tested. The conventional view is that internal authority and external endorsement are intertwined, but that’s an international legal fiction, not real politics. As places like Afghanistan and Somalia remind us, international endorsement does not magically cause domestic factions to fall in line behind the anointed party.

There’s a chicken-and-egg quality to the state-building problem. To establish itself as a functioning national government, Libya’s TNC needs to build up trust in its authority. To build that trust, the TNC needs to get the country’s disparate militias to start obeying its writ and, in so doing, to demonstrate that it deserves their trust. Those militias are going to be reluctant to follow the TNC’s writ, however, as long as they are worried that the TNC or other rival factions might take advantage of them if they do. So which comes first: obedience, or trust?

I know very little about Libyan politics and society, and I certainly don’t know how this situation will evolve. As a scholar with experience studying state collapse, though, I have to say that I’m pessimistic. In some collapsed states, one faction holds a preponderance of coercive power, and that imbalance can encourage other factions to start falling in line behind it. When coercive power is distributed broadly and more evenly, however, it’s more difficult to get that kind of bandwagoning started. I would be surprised to see another organization make a competing claim to national authority; foreign powers’ endorsement of, and investment in, the TNC should succeed in discouraging that. I would not be surprised to see emerging local governments and the militias that back or control them adopt a “wait and see” attitude, occasionally clashing with the TNC or each other when they step on each others’ political or economic toes. Hopefully, Libya’s factions will manage to negotiate their way out of this dilemma soon, but that outcome would be an exceptional one.

UPDATE: From this New York Times story, published later in the day this post went up, it sounds like mistrust is winning and obedience is going to be a very hard sell:

Many of the local militia leaders who helped topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi are abandoning a pledge to give up their weapons and now say they intend to preserve their autonomy and influence political decisions as “guardians of the revolution”…“Nobody wants to give up arms now, and many tribes and cities are accumulating arms ‘just in case,’ ” said Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the council’s executive board…Many members of military councils insist that they need to stay armed until a new constitution is ratified because they do not trust the weak provisional government to steer Libya to democracy on its own. “We are the ones who are holding the power there — the people with the force on the ground — and we are not going to give that up until we have a legitimate government that will emerge from free and fair elections,” said Anwar Fekini, a French-Libyan lawyer who is a leader of the armed groups in the western mountains and is also close to top leaders of the transitional council. “We will make sure we are going to bring the country to a civil constitution and democratic system,” he added, “and we will use all available means — first of all our might on the ground.”

All Good Things Do Not Always Go Together

A story in today’s New York Times describes how the site of a massacre of dozens of alleged Gaddafi loyalists in Surt was scrubbed before evidence required for a careful investigation could be collected.

It appeared to be one of the worst massacres of the eight-month conflict, but days after it occurred, no one from Libya’s new government had come to investigate. The interim leaders, who declared the country liberated on Sunday, may simply have their hands full with the responsibilities that come with running a state. But throughout the Libyan conflict, they have also shown themselves to be unwilling or incapable of looking into accusations of atrocities by their fighters, despite repeated pledges not to tolerate abuse.

There’s a sharp tension in Libya right now between demands from external forces for the NTC to police rights violations and the NTC’s own need to expand its circle of loyalty. The NTC just isn’t powerful enough to impose its authority across Libyan territory, so it will have to try to induce compliance from disparate militias by offering gains from cooperation. Even where clearly warranted, investigations and trials of rival militias’ members are more likely to push those groups away than pull them in.

In short, the NTC simply can’t please both constituencies–foreign patrons calling for instant hierarchy and domestic militias seeking a share of power–at the same time. Unfortunately, all good things do not always go together.

Why Didn’t Gaddafi Just Retire?

Close on the heels of his capture and apparent execution by Libyan rebels, we are learning that longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi amassed an astonishing personal fortune over his 40+ years in power. According to a story in today’s Washington Post (emphasis added),

Gaddafi secretly salted away more than $200 billion in bank accounts, real estate and corporate investments around the world before he was killed — about $30,000 for every Libyan citizen and double the amount that Western governments previously had suspected, according to senior Libyan officials…If the values are accurate, Gaddafi will go down in history as one of the most rapacious as well as one of the most bizarre world leaders.

That’s billion with a B, folks. If it’s even close to accurate, that fortune would have made Gaddafi the richest person in the world.

Gaddafi’s mind-boggling wealth poses a puzzle for political scientists who study authoritarian rule. With all that money stuffed under his mattress, why didn’t Gaddafi just walk away early in the course of the rebellion to enjoy a fat retirement? When you’ve already got $200 billion to work with, the marginal benefits of additional accumulation are going to be pretty thin. Instead, Gaddafi chose to stick it out, and look where that decision got him (warning: graphic).

Most theories of authoritarian rule solve this problem by fiat. Rulers are simply assumed to value staying in office over everything else, and at virtually any cost. If we start with that assumption, Gaddafi’s behavior is not puzzling at all–but recently “retired” Tunisian president Ben Ali‘s is. Recall that Ben Ali fled his country just a few weeks after Tunisia’s popular uprising started to gain steam, before it was apparent whether or not the challenge could be sustained. Clearly, retirement is an option for some dictators.

In short, I think we still have a pretty poor understanding of what motivates authoritarian rulers to cling to power (or not). This matters, because the better we understand rulers’ motivations, the better equipped we are as policy-makers or activists to design strategies that might drive those rulers from office and allow for democratization. Among the many things the Arab uprisings of 2011 will give the world, perhaps one of them will be a better grasp of how dictators decide when enough is enough.

PS. On October 23, The New York Times ran this story describing Gaddafi’s last days, based mostly on the account of one member of his inner circle. The story suggests that Gaddafi may have been willing to cede power and trying to flee the country toward the end, but it’s hard to put a lot of stock in the words of one man whose own fate was so closely tied to the colonel’s.

PPS. Over at the Monkey Cage, eminent political scientist Barbara Walter sees Gaddafi’s decision to stick it out as an unfortunate side effect of a strengthened International Criminal Court.

International Politics and the Production of Arab National Councils

One of the many interesting things the “Arab awakening” of 2011 has given us is the opportunity to witness the reproduction of the international system in real time with uncommon clarity.

By “international system,” I mean the institutions around which global politics is organized and the norms and values on which those institutions depend. This system may feel like it’s a feature of our natural environment, but it isn’t. As anthropologists are especially adept at showing, the political systems that we take for granted are really constructs we produce through everyday practices and representations.  These constructs often become so deeply embedded that it’s hard to imagine a world without them, but they are not inevitable, and their dependence on human practice means they are forever vulnerable to challenge and change. In a way, these systems are like ant hills. We collectively build and rebuild them as we follow our daily routines, often without even being told to do so. Even though the hill is constantly under repair, its residents and constituent materials always changing, we still perceive it as a fixed feature of the landscape.

The defining feature of the contemporary international system is the organization of politics at the global level around relations among nation-states. The nation-states on which this system is predicated are, in the ideal, hierarchical political organizations with unified authority over specific swathes of territory. This authority is legitimated through mutual recognition; you are the rightful ruler of your territory because I recognize you, and I am the rightful ruler of my territory because you recognize me. In practice, this system means that every bit of (populated) territory is assigned to a specific state; each of these states is supposed to speak with one voice; and international relations is supposed to be about official representatives of these states talking to (or, increasingly rarely, fighting with) each other.

Because this system presumes the existence of unified, sovereign governments, its constituents get very uncomfortable when the identity of another member becomes unclear. Unfinished revolutions are one way that can happen. When states say they no longer recognize an existing government as the legitimate representative of another state, the design of the international system compels them to anoint a successor as quickly as possible. That successor can’t be any old organization, however; it has to fit the template of a state. It ought to speak with one voice for the entire territory over which it claims authority, and, ideally, it ought to have some capacity for backing that claim to authority with force.

In Arab states experiencing revolutions this year, international demand for a successor to regimes declared illegitimate has encouraged the rapid formation of national councils to which international recognition could be readily transferred. The “national council” meme got started in Libya back in February, when rebels in Benghazi announced the formation of a council that would unite new governing bodies and military forces across “freed” parts of Libya. Two weeks later, France became the first country to recognize the Transitional National Council (TNC) as Libya’s legitimate government, and many other countries soon followed. At the time of its formation, the TNC papered over regional divisions that are becoming more apparent now that Gaddafi has been driven from Tripoli. In the meantime, though, international recognition legitimated military cooperation with rebel forces and gave the TNC access to badly needed funds.

The Libyan national council’s success at attracting international recognition and support has spurred imitation. Opposition forces in Yemen followed suit in August, and Syrian dissidents did the same in early October. Neither of these councils has won international recognition yet, in part because they haven’t shown many signs of being able to seize and sustain control of territory–one of the pillars of national sovereignty under the current system.

The important point here, though, is that these national councils have not arisen organically from domestic politics. There is undoubtedly some domestic logic to their creation–unified and coordinated revolutionary movements usually stand a better chance of toppling incumbent rulers than fragmented ones–but there is a strong outward-facing element as well. I think these councils came into being as quickly as they did–and maybe even at all–in response to pressures from foreign governments whose endorsements and material support they thought they needed to win their revolutions. Tellingly, SNC spokesman Ghalioun said at the international press conference announcing the council’s formation that one major benefit of the SNC’s existence “would be to provide a single body with which other countries could coordinate.”

Without question, the establishment of a unified and credible alternative government is a convenience for other states cheering for the fall of the incumbent regime. What often goes unrecognized in this process is the potential for unintended consequences. In the short run, this rush to unity could have some positive effects by hastening the successful conclusion of these revolutions. At the same time, international pressures to present a unified face may accelerate or even prevent political bargaining among opposition factions in ways that could undercut the viability of the regime that follows.

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