By Rachel Marsden
PARIS -- The U.S. has accepted a proposal by Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan to train as many as 7,000 conventional Libyan soldiers plus counterterrorist forces. What an exceedingly bad idea. This could put the Obama administration's Hope-and-Change bus on the road to a potential new fiasco in Libya. Think Benghazi -- except everywhere.
Speaking at the Reagan Presidential Library in California last week, the man who led the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, Admiral William McRaven of the U.S. Special Operations Command, could barely contain his enthusiasm for the opportunity: "As a country, we have to say there is probably some risk that some of the people we will be training with do not have the most clean record. At the end of the day, it is the best solution we can find to train them to deal with their own problems."
How stoked the admiral must be at the thought of providing the finest training American taxpayers can buy to foreign soldiers capable of bypassing the sort of rigorous background checks and enlistment standards to which his own domestic forces are subjected. The U.S. military does its best to prevent incidents like the one at Fort Hood, where a lone loon slipped through the cracks in the system and committed mass murder on an actual military base. But even domestically, background checks and other measures aren't foolproof. How effective would they be when researching foreign nationals in a terrorist hotbed? The FBI could run the names of all the Libyan recruits about to undergo U.S. military training and still wouldn't even be able to tell if they've shoplifted from Nordstrom, let alone if they intend to wage jihad.
The recruiting ground for Libyan trainees would be the very same nest that spawned the jihadists who murdered American Ambassador Christopher Stevens in cold blood. The country is a hodgepodge of terrorist groups: There are at least 13 official terrorist organizations in Libya, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism.
Direct military training that risks blowback in an already unstable country isn't the way to create lasting stabilization. Foreign direct investment and the presence of major multinational companies offering jobs, hope, reconstruction and infrastructure -- along with their very own ex-military security personnel -- is a solution that could foster long-term stability.
When citizens are given the opportunity to earn a living wage in the wake of conflict, a protective local community develops around the employer. This is particularly true in a country like Libya, where, according to Central Intelligence Agency statistics, about one-third of the population lives at or below the poverty line.
It's always preferable to foresee and prevent a conflict rather than having to call in the troops once something breaks out. And a company's employees in a reconstruction zone become sources of valuable intelligence in the interest of wanting to preserve their new lives. Cooperation between local security and that of multinationals moving into Libya to help with reconstruction should be encouraged. But there's a difference between cooperating and outright training them in your own military tactics.
In 2012, Libya's Economy Minister, Ahmed Salem Al-Koshli, told an audience in Dubai that Libya wants "long-term investment" from foreign countries. The implication was that interested foreign companies should not only agree to ride out any turbulence, but should also be willing to invest in building some bridges, roads and housing when they're taking a break from sucking oil and minerals out of the ground. With all these activities come jobs, profit and a pretext for cooperation between various parties, and therefore increased stability.
But here, once again, China is the West's biggest competitor. Despite Libya's longstanding trade relationships with European countries such as Italy and France, no one provides more foreign direct investment to Libya than the Chinese. China and the United States are the world's top foreign direct investors, and according to a United Nations report, FDI stocks in Libya doubled from 2010 to 2011, to the point where they represented more than half of the country's GDP, before dropping off in 2012. An FDI conference set for Tripoli next spring indicates that Libya is once again keen to be seduced.
China doesn't care about training the Libyan military or about the nuances of Islamic banking. It's building massive housing projects and railways, and it's confident that a willingness to do business with Libya will pay off. This is a proxy economic war between China and America in Libya and across Africa, not a military one. U.S. President Barack Obama should be less focused on training potential jihadists and more focused on using capitalism to best China in head-to-head foreign market competition -- at the same time offering better wages and higher environmental standards. Otherwise, America might unwittingly end up training a proxy army for China.