Lord Palmerston’s often quoted dictum about there being no friends in international politics, only interests, appears about to come true yet again. This time it is Libya.
It is a sad fact that powerful nations show scant regard for any corner of the world where there is no advantage to be gained by so doing. Where there are rich resources at stake, even dictatorships are not of any particular worry, providing they, the dictators, are prepared to cooperate with trade. When the dictator turns mongrel and starts to interfere with the ready access to resources, that is a very different matter.
If we remember back to Iraq, some economists have pointed out that Saddam Hussein’s real crime against the US was deciding that, like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, he wished to be paid in Euros for oil rather than US dollars, thereby putting an unwelcome strain on an already strained US currency. When the US forces did eventually invade Iraq, they came under international criticism for the unseemly attention they gave to safeguarding oil production facilities while initially ignoring the humanitarian plight of the people and failing to safeguard archaeological treasures. If we bear in mind the interests part of Palmerston’s dictum, we should not have been surprised.
In the case of Libya, Qadhafi (one of many spellings allowed!) had gone one worse and started by attacking the rebels in the key areas of oil production and commerce.
One of these key areas was AL-ZAWIYAH: only about 50km from Qadhafi’s main base of power in Tripoli, al-Zawiyah was initially the focus for some of the heaviest fighting. The Western concern there was not so much for the city’s population of 90,000 – but rather the major oilfield and oil refinery on the outskirts of the city. The attacks on SIRUTE a coastal city with a key oil port, RAS LANUF and city built for oil workers and TOBRUK with its Pipeline terminal and oil shipping facilities, were enough initially to halve oil exports. In the last few days oil export from Libya appears to have come to a halt. Worse from the Western pont of view, the widespread unease about developments in Liya in particular and the whole of the Middle East in general was causing a jump in oil prices. It was not helped either that Chavez, no friend of the US, was offering support to Qadhafi. Curiously even after it became obvious that the US, Britain and France were going to move to interfere, Qadhafi sealed his fate by threatening to go after civilian airliners in the nearby areas.
While this probably seems serious enough, in practice, Libya only represents about 1% of the world’s oil supplies, and thus far Saudi Arabia has been able to step up production in partial compensation. Although much was made of Qahdafi’s intent to go after civilian populations cynical observers would note that other dictators have done far worse eg what has happened in the last few years in Zimbabwe. However in Western eyes, Libya was probably more significant in terms of the mounting unrest elsewhere in the Middle East, which gives some impetus to the US current if somewhat restrained intervention. The strong action eventually taken to establish the no fly zone is not yet clear in its long term effects. It is not even clear if that would be in the interests of the US since restricting the attacks on the rebels might only delay the inevitable in that Qadhafi has chosen his loyal troops to arm and train, whereas the rebels are poorly armed and trained. More importantly just because Qadhafi is currently doing terrible things to those who challenge him (in his non tribal areas), it does not follow the West will continue to move against him, since there is considerable trepidation about the likely shape and intentions of a rebel led government.
It is hard to believe that consideration for the civilian population is the main concern since Western governments made sure that most of their nations were out of the country before starting military action, but denied the same rights of escape to local Libyans. It is sad but true that sometimes the West has turned a blind eye to terrible examples of genocide (cf Rwanda) for uncomfortably long periods of time when no immediate personal advantage to do otherwise presents itself. To see how far this can be extended we only need to consider Gaza or the Congo. This may seem surprising in terms of the obvious human rights issues in the current events in Libya, yet a too obvious total direct intervention would be difficult for the US. First they are already over- extended militarily in the Middle East. Second while it is easy for the US to get support from long term allies like the UK for UN action, other nations are vying for a larger share of Middle East oil and are less enthusiastic about military intervention. China and Russia are being very cautious about any action in Libya at present. Third, for all his faults Qadhafi has at least offered some resistance to the pro al-Qaeda movement and there is no guarantee that if a more democratically elected government was to gain control that they would be more favourably inclined to the US. As so have recently pointed out among the rebels there are some supported by al Qaeda. Indeed, in Libya, as with many other places in the Middle East, the Pew Research group has conducted polls and found a large majority to be opposed to US interests. A good reason, a cynical observer might think, for the US to prop up ruthless dictators with a willingness to support the US.
No doubt many will see the UN referring Libya to the International Court of Human Justice as a definite step in the right direction, but a more thoughtful response might be to acknowledge that thus far this Court appears designed only to work in favour of Western interests. For example it should not have escaped everyone’s attention that all the current cases before the International Court are from Africa, or that three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are not yet signatories of the Treaty of Rome that established this International Court, or even that many obvious candidates for international censure have escaped the Court’s attention. Eg Sri Lanka with its recent action that resulted in the deaths of 30,000 civilians, China in Nepal, Timor Leste etc. Even Dafur is currently being placed on the back-burner, with President Bashir being apparently offered a substantial time out despite his excessive use of force on his own citizens.
While the protection of civilians provides the excuse for the UN resolution it provides a very unclear document when it comes to action. For example while the pro-government forces can have their tanks and artillery attacked by UN approved forces when attacking civilians it is not clear how close they have to be before action is taken. Since there are civilians on both sides who are under threat, it is not clear what the response needs to be when rebel forces are placing pro government civilians under threat.
It is nice to resolve disputes with the UN standing behind such resolutions. Unfortunately Lord Palmerston reminds us that sometimes this diplomacy occurs only when and if the principal players see such a resolution to their advantage.