Al-Obedi's Tripoli Surprise and the Packaging of Libya's Future

How should the international community react to the surprising statement by Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, Libya's current foreign minister, with its dramatic suggestion for a way forward? Is his suggestion of a ceasefire and discussions leading to free elections worth pursuing?

I'd argue that al-Obeidi's contribution, in a conversation with editors of the Guardian, the BBC, ITN and the Washington Post, should be considered as part of a complex effort to develop a "strategic narrative" -- a formal or informal understanding among key actors that sets the stage for moving forward. The key actors in this narrative certainly include the NATO players, perhaps the African Union, maybe the rebels, and certainly, to some extent, forces within the Libyan government or the government itself. The foreign minister's statement can be seen in the same category as the UN resolution of late February imposing a no-fly zone. And, as well, this week's unusual joint statement by President Obama, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, calling again for the removal of Gaddafi.

I have been tracking the events of the so-called Arab Spring in terms of the development or absence of such "strategic narratives," a concept put forward by various analysts of international relations and communications, among others Ben O'Loughlin at the University of London and Laura Roselle at Elon University. Strategic narratives are something like scripts with their authorial consensus about how actors should function.

What made me turn to the concept of the strategic narrative was Hosni Mubarak's speech on February 1, 2011. When Mubarak spoke to the Egyptian public, it was widely anticipated that he would recognize the importance of the rising civil society, speak respectfully of processes of fundamental change, and gracefully announce a purposive set of practices for shuffling off the political stage. Instead, he gave a somewhat angry, defensive speech in which he emphasized ways he would continue to control the levers of power rather than summarily disappear. The reaction in the Egyptian military, the protestors in the street, and the international policy world in Europe and the United States was virtually unanimous. Mubarak blundered, he had violated expectations in some fundamental way. Within 24 hours, he found himself forced to resign.

A few weeks later, it was Libya's turn at a potentially scripted performance. In the face of growing protests in Benghazi and in Tripoli, Saif Gaddafi, the LSE-educated son of the Libyan leader, spoke to the Libyan public (and the world). He too was expected to suggest a threshold to transition, with the departure of his father and a role for himself as a bridge to a more modern, reformed and democratic state. Instead, his performance was bitterly disappointing -- surprising many who knew him and had prepared him for this moment.

But there was not at that time a successful "strategic narrative." As a result, neither he nor his father left power as a result of this unexpected speech. But within days, the UN passed a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and all necessary steps to prevent civilian deaths in Libya, and President Obama, Sarkozy and others called for the father's resignation.

What was the nature of the consensus that led to such a swift departure for Mubarak and the significant international response to Gaddafi? From a perspective of "strategic narratives," Mubarak and young Gaddafi were speaking as players in an episode, set by key actors, international and domestic, who had the expectation that their wishes as to the playing out of the drama would be fulfilled. Their speeches did not match the sufficiently accepted script, in the case of Mubarak, or the incomplete outlines of one, as in the case of young Gaddafi. As O'Loughlin would put it, they did not accept the story, shaped by significant international powers "with the express purpose of influencing the foreign policy behavior of other actors." They did not fit into a framework, as Laura Roselle has explained, "constructed to allow people to make sense of the world, policies, events, and interactions."

Another way to put this is that there are two Libyas: a well-counseled Libya, guided by an expensive international public relations firm that realizes how expectations and narratives are important in building credibility; and the Libya unleashed, one that abandons its many tutorials in proper international discourse. Al-Obeidi obviously reflects the side that recognizes the power of joining in the more acceptable behavior.

Strategic narratives function even if they cover over major differences and even if they are articulated with assumptions that prove incorrect. The entry into the Iraq war proved that. Contributions to the narrative are seized upon, or should be, if they help build advantageous consensus, if they reflect actual power, and if the story itself has a compelling quality.

Al-Obeidi's fleeting conversation contains the gem of all three of these qualities. The idea of a ceasefire and a potential election has attraction. True, there could be a unique Jonestown argument -- that it is hard to have a free election in the wake of a period of long-term charisma that some might consider brain-washing. But there are mini-narratives contained within this one, narratives of who would run or not run, who would manage in the interim, who would mediate and on what issues. If there is an implicit or explicit agreement, it will produce a script with discipline, a script with expectation of consequences for not adhering to them.