Despite the initial euphoria about the downfall of a brutal and erratic autocracy in Libya, three uncomfortable matters emerge from the wreckage – and not just the obvious question of whether the National Transitional Council can bring about the reconciliation for a secure, viable and democratic future for the country.
One issue, which should not be lost sight of in the rebels’ victory, is the deliberate manipulation of UN Resolution 1973 to achieve ends manifestly beyond and not covered by its text. The legal advice given to the Cabinet by the Government’s legal officers has never been published in full, only a summary where no-one can know what may be omitted. Cameron however did say in the Commons on 21 March that “The action will be limited by what the UN Security Council resolution says……….We must act both within the letter and the spirit of that”. Clearly it didn’t cover mission creep to justify regime change, the bombing of Tripoli, and attempted assassination of Gadaffi.
Second is the question why the Western powers chose to intervene in the case of Libya but not other states in equal or even greater need of rescue. The crux of Resolution 1973 was the legitimate deployment of military force to put in place a no-fly zone and to take necessary measures to prevent the deaths of civilians. There are many other countries that can fall within that rubric – including Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Congo, Zimbabwe – yet no intervention is planned in any such cases. It is difficult, and disturbing, not to believe that oil was not the major consideration that prompted Western action. Libya is capable of producing 1.6million barrels a day, 2% of global supply, and that increment of production coming on to world markets will significantly reduce the price of oil and ease pressures on economic recovery, not to mention substantially enrich most if not all of the big US-UK oil companies that are already lobbying their governments to seize a slice of the action and to forestall China which is already positioning itself for big contracts.
Third there is the awkward question of liberal interventionism itself. Blair’s Chicago speech in 1999 enunciated the doctrine of military action to protect the populations of oppressed states against genocide. The problem is that the application of this doctrine has been limited to those countries where Westerfn interests judged that intervention would be desirable. It has looked uncomfortably like a rationalised pretext for old-fashioned Western imperialism. Worse, it has been undertaken messily and unsuccessfully in Iraq and Afghanistan. The test will come when Russia or China decides to take action which they justify under the flag of liberal interventionism. Libya has not yet validated this very questionable concept.