The United States and its European allies are at war again, and at the time of writing things in Libya seem to be going reasonably well by the standards of the previous (and ongoing) interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack Obama's address to the American people on the evening of 28 March 2011 gave a deft presentation of the United States's "responsibility to act" in Libya, while emphasising that "the burden of action should not be America's alone". The president was most emphatic that the painful and costly experience in Iraq "is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya".
Yet the speech, delivered only hours before a conference in London to discuss Libya's future, answers none of the many questions that remain: both about the outcome of the conflict there and the west's future role, and even more its policy towards the contest between the old Arab world and the new one the democracy movements are seeking to create.
The background of Obama's speech and the London conference appears broadly positive for the anti-Gaddafi coalition. The domestic publics are being shown the effects of French Mirage and Rafale jets strafing Colonel Gaddafi’s tanks on the outskirts of Benghazi, and of British and American submarines pouring expensive cruise missiles into Libya’s command, control, communications and intelligence centres.
The focus on military strikes - so far almost wholly free of the disastrous misfirings that have killed many civilians in previous wars - helps to sustain the glow of a “good war”. The main story holds, that the reassembled good guys are protecting Libyans civilians from a monstrous dictator; and this time they have even taken the precaution of having some of the “others”, in this case the Arab League, on side.
The realist frame
For the time being, then - which could be short in this fast-moving conflict - Libya is quite a different story from Iraq. The combination of military success and intensive television coverage makes it resemble more the short (seventy-eight days) war in Kosovo in 1999. More generally, and here the comparison extends to the earlier wars of Yugoslavia’s break-up, a strong motivation of western states is to wage the anti-Gaddafi campaign while saving their electorates from having to watch on the television news the distressing effects of military combat.
The real conflict over Libya’s future is thus filtered through western political worlds that are pressed by intensive news-cycles. These pressures, powerful enough in “normal” times, accelerate where (as with Bosnia, Kosovo and now Libya) unequal conflicts in which state forces are committing or threatening massacre of vulnerable populations can produce among domestic audiences a “something-must-be-done” mood.
In a democratic society this exerts a powerful influence on the response of political leaders (most prominently in this case Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Barack Obama), even if it is only one of several. Indeed, their motives are complex: the chance to break free from difficulties at home often plays as much of a part (especially true of Sarkozy in the current war) as the desire to save innocent lives.
Where Libya is concerned the intervention almost certainly did prevent a horrible atrocity, though in itself that is no guide to what might occur later. Moreover, the oft-made point about consistency stands: the western powers do not attempt to protect all innocent civilians or punish every tyrant, for these powers are so often - as in Gaddafi’s Libya - deeply complicit in authoritarian rule.
After all, no one called for attempted “regime change” in Uzbekistan after the massacre in Andijan in 2005, or the revelations of torture under Islam Karimov, far less proposed a “no-fly zone” over China after the shooting of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. And though the prospect of an attack on Iran (by the United States or Israel) has often been discussed in recent years, the context is always Tehran’s nuclear plans rather than its cruel repression of the democracy movement after the stolen presidential election in 2009.
“There is such a thing”, said Woodrow Wilson, shortly before he accepted the inevitability of American involvement in the first world war, “as being too proud to fight”. His recent successors have been willing to fight many small countries, from Grenada and Panama to Lebanon and Serbia - but not since 1945 have they taken on a military equal (with the partial exception of China after it unexpectedly entered the Korean war). America’s allies use force against violating states even more parsimoniously, as the examples of Chad or Sierra Leone illustrate. Their defence is often expressed in realist terms: “liberal interventionism” against China is unfeasible, but it is right to save lives where that is possible.
The friendship game
Beyond inconsistency, the important argument relates to how the current military campaign relates to the future. The intervention in Libya creates a set of new questions: whether and how much to help the rebels, what to do in the event of stalemate, what a post-Gaddafi Libya might look like, and what should be the exit strategy. In turn these are a subset of dilemmas facing outside forces in the broader region. The continuing protests in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain; possible unrest in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Algeria; and the challenges of creating proper governance in Tunisia and Egypt - all this crucially tests the nature and depth of the western powers’ proclaimed commitment to democracy.
It is fundamental to the the United States's global self-image that it upholds democracy against tyranny and dictatorship (indeed, though nowadays only in whispers, against monarchy). But here too, the consistency - and the history - is not encouraging. During the cold war, the US upheld many autocrats - from Syngman Rhee and Ferdinand Marcos to Mobutu Sese Seko and numerous Latin American caudillos - just so long as they were anti-communist. In the middle east, Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy led to a situation where Washington after 1973 increasingly supported “strong men” who tacitly agreed not to attack Israel or pursue a “radical” regional agenda. The Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Ali Abdullah Saleh one in Yemen, and the Saudi monarchy are prominent examples.
The Saudi example is all the more stark in exposing the inconsistency between claim and policy, in that its brutal justice system at home has been combined with heavy investment in madrasas in a dozen countries where young Muslims are taught to hate the United States, Israel, and indeed democracy. None of this mattered against the kingdom’s status as the world biggest single producer of oil. So the US and Britain sold $100-billion worth of the latest weaponry to the Saudis, and treated leading members of the royal elite as honoured guests (as they will be at the forthcoming Windsor nuptials, unless they have the tact to stay away).
The history test
There is nothing new about Realpolitik, even if Americans used to denounce it as a base European practice. But Realpolitik suggests a rational calculation of interest. What recent experience suggests is that the west in the middle east and north Africa is entangled in unsustainable contradictions that threaten its security as well as its reputation. This poses a series of difficult questions.
What do the United States and Europe mean when they say they believe in democracy? Is it that Libyans, and Egyptians, and Yemenis, and Bahrainis, and the people of what is now Saudi Arabia, and Algerians, and Moroccans, have the right to choose their government, under constitutions that they choose for themselves?
These are rights that the west is proud to claim for itself, and proud to have encouraged the former communist nations of east-central Europe to win for themselves. Does the west believe that the peoples of the middle east would still have that right if they were to choose governments of which the west disapproves, or which threatened the west’s economic or security interests? In a word, do the United States and Europe really believe in democracy?
If a point comes when the west must choose between supporting Arab peoples as they courageously resist oppressive rulers, and backing those rulers to guarantee oil supplies and help subdue Islamist terrorists, which side is it on?
It is one thing to send fighter-bombers to suppress the Libyan air-force and army. What if the Saudi monarchy and all its sophisticated weaponry were to be violently defending their unjust status quo against brave and vulnerable protesters in Riyadh or Dhahran (where Aramco has its headquarters)?
The answers are far from obvious. They are also neither academic nor unrealistic. Perhaps sooner than they expect, western states will have to consider not what they would do in such circumstances but what they shall do. Better, surely, to rethink their whole approach in the little time they may have left.