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Libya: What Next?

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Libya: What Next?

I find it very entertaining to watch reporters swing in the wind. During the past few weeks more and more have ended up in this position. They have been caught in a dilemma. Do they support intervention to topple Gadhafi, and thus show their commitment to human rights and democracy? Or do they oppose intervention for fear that it might be futile, and try to pay lip service to human rights and democracy?

Most often, if I can use journalists for the New York Times as a representative sample of the liberal-oriented media, they try to walk a very fine line claiming to be pro-democracy and pragmatists at the same time. Several have spelled out the pros and cons of military intervention, and then abruptly conclude that the cons outweigh the pros. But I have yet to see any compelling argument put forth by such journalists to support their conclusions. They seem to be like deer caught in the headlights, fearing that if they support intervention they might have to admit that perhaps Bush Jr. was right, even if the execution of his strategy might have been flawed.

Margaret Wente however did ask a very provocative question in her article in Tuesday’s Globe and Mail: “Why are we at war in Libya?” In other words, what are the objectives? Economic theory is all about individuals optimizing some objective function. One would assume that this also would be the case in political and military circles.

Is the West involved because they sincerely do want to encourage and promote the spread of freedom, democracy and rights? Then why just target Libya? What about Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, and so on down a long list to China? Where does the West draw the line and why? Is the West being selective for strategic reasons? If so, what are they? Or is this the first of many future interventions?

If the West is sincere, why did it take so long for them to act? Surely they did not need the support of the UN, a bastion for dictators and thugs, or the Arab League, many of whose members are under siege by their people.

And why resort to military action? Why not sanctions instead? As I have argued before, the US, if it desired, could impose very effective sanctions unilaterally. All it needs to do is make the US market off-limits to every company and individual that has any dealings, direct or indirect, with the regimes that have been targeted.

There are two obvious problems inherent in this strategy. First, is the US, or indeed the rest of the West, prepared to cut off oil supplies from the countries that undoubtedly would be on the list of undemocratic, repressive regimes? Would consumers and the electorate in the West tolerate oil prices in the hundreds of dollars per barrel that would be inevitable if such sanctions were imposed and enforced? Given the opposition to modest carbon taxes, it is unlikely that consumers would be willing to pay this price.

We all may pay lip service to the importance of democracy and human rights, but at the end of the day, most of us are unwilling to pay the price. Greed trumps our concerns for others.

The second problem is that the US and the West would be unlikely to implement this strategy all the way up the ladder to China. Thus, the sanctions and the interventions would by and large appear to be arbitrary. We would be viewed increasingly as being anti-Muslim and interested only in oil.

So, why are we at war in Libya?

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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