Joshua Keating ponders the U.S. recognition of the TNC in Libya, and suggests that Woodrow Wilson’s policy towards Mexico may have provided a precedent. If I were a Libyan war supporter, I’m not sure that I would be encouraged by the comparison to Wilson’s inept responses to Mexico’s civil war, but what I found more interesting was the justification Wilson gave for not recognizing Huerta’s government. Wilson said:

Mexico has no Government. The attempt to maintain one at the City of Mexico has broken down, and a mere military despotism has been set up which has hardly more than the semblance of national authority. It originated in the usurpation of Victoriano Huerta, who, after a brief attempt to play the part of constitutional President, has at last cast aside even the pretense of legal right and declared himself dictator. As a consequence, a condition of affairs now exists in Mexico which has made it doubtful whether even the most elementary and fundamental rights either of her own people or of the citizens of other countries resident within her territory can long be successfully safeguarded, and which threatens, if long continued, to imperil the interests of peace, order, and tolerable life in the lands immediately to the south of us.

The comparison with Wilson’s response to Huerta isn’t quite as helpful as it seems. That was a case of refusing to extend de facto recognition to a regime created by seizing power. Despite Huerta’s de facto control of the country, Wilson would not agree to recognize his regime. Had there been a coup against Gaddafi, and a new dictator had established himself in Tripoli, this would offer some guidance as to how an earlier President handled the question of recognizing a coup government. What we have here instead is the decision to use recognition as part of the campaign to aid an armed insurrection against the established government. In this case, the U.S. is extending recognition to a rebel group that does not have de facto control of most of the country, but which the U.S. favors in the civil war despite its weakness and dependence on outside help.

The reasons Wilson gave for refusing to extend recognition to Huerta would be good arguments for not extending recognition to the TNC right now. If Libya has no functioning government in many parts of the country, it is because of a rebellion backed by outside intervention. The TNC certainly has little more than “the semblance of national authority,” it originated in rebellion against the established government, there is a “condition of affairs” in Libya “which has made it doubtful whether even the most elementary and fundamental rights either of her own people or of the citizens of other countries resident within her territory can long be successfully safeguarded,” and this condition “threatens, if long continued, to imperil the interests of peace, order, and tolerable life” throughout the country.