Why Libya? Why now?

Many people have been asking, why intervene in Libya when there are other people who are struggling against their tyrannical governments who also need support? There is more than one answer. I do not purport to have them all–someone in my position could not, as we do not know what backroom deals have been arrived at, nor how and with whom, to approve this mission in the UN Security Council. (Where is Wikileaks when you need it?)

One reason is probably that Libya seems to be the only state whose resistance has a leadership structure states can deal with on their own terms, as distinct from an amorphous mass of protesters. France recognised the rebel group as Libya’s new government two weeks ago, and all other governments involved are under pressure to follow suit.

The idea of oil interests is of course also floated as a possibility. Libya’s daily oil production runs somewhere between that of Angola and Algeria, constituting about 2% of world supply. If the US, Canada and so on are perceived as entering Libya to steal its oil, their reputations worldwide will drop to levels of unpopularity that would impress the colonel himself. A larger share of 2% of the world’s oil is not enough to motivate the powerful states to take such a big risk. While of course Big Oil would like to get its tentacles on that oil, especially at today’s prices, I do not think oil alone would provide the political support this mission needs, nor explain why Libya is the target.

Here is why Libya is the target. What is the name of the guy killing people in Libya? Muammar Gaddafi, of course. What else do we know about him? He is a crazy dictator. What are the names of the bad guys in Bahrain, Algeria and Yemen? How many Americans, British, Canadians and French can name them? Never mind them; we have the epitome of evil to take care of. In the US and Canada in particular, people are raised on a diet of super heroes and super villains. The Joker, Cobra Commander, Megatron and Skeletor, the villains I grew up with, wanted nothing but power, and commanded bands of evil mercenaries to kill innocent people. Muammar, like Saddam, fits this image perfectly: a one-dimensional, insane and funny-dressing dictator, massacring innocent people.

Moreover, the Libyan diaspora has no love for Gaddafi, and has been demanding his downfall in all the countries in question. (See this protest in London, for instance; some 20 Libyans were even yelling anti-Gaddafi slogans on the steps of the BC parliament.) The voters generally accept or encourage the decapitation of Libya. Along with the acquiescence of the Arab League and the United Nations, these facts explain why an intervention in Libya is politically possible.

A better comparison might even be made with Slobodan Milošević, the Butcher of Belgrade, who became the target of the 1999 NATO mission to protect Kosovo from Serbia, and grant it independence. The invasion was by no means an unqualified success. Despite every measure taken to target military infrastructure and minimise civilian casualties (which, by law, is necessary in war), hundreds of non-combatants were killed. Innocent Libyans will die in this “no-fly zone”.

The violence in Libya seems to occupy far more news media space than Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. According to polls, Americans are watching news about Libya, approve (60-70%) of intervention and generally agree that the comic book villain Lord of Libya should be removed from power. (That said, Europeans are less enthusiastic.) Barack has stated he will not send in ground troops, which means none of the invading states will. The ideal for the intervening governments is a quick victory and end to the conflict, and quick elections to remake Libya in the image of the West. Foreign casualties will be minimal, as they were in Kosovo (after all, how are Gaddafi’s forces supposed to hit submarines launching cruise missiles?). The heads of state ordering this mission will look like heroes and their approval ratings will rise at home. (Always watch the election cycle–Canadians may soon be heading to the polls.) That is, until things go wrong.

In fact, I see little reason to expect that everything will go as planned. The governments involved in Libya have consistently shown they have no plan for the countries they send their militaries to, and that their ad hoc planning rarely results in progress. Humanitarian interventions require long-term campaigns involving nation-building at the bottom and state-building at the top. Publics in these countries, who need to approve of such controversial commitments if their states are going to see them through, have short attention spans and low tolerance of casualties. If the violence in Libya ends when Gaddafi’s regime falls, like in Kosovo, the country can begin to rebuild. If not, it will be Iraq all over again.

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