Lessons of Libya: War isn’t always Necessary
Hawks in Washington will attempt to make the argument that Libya’s sudden willingness to give up its weapons of mass destruction programs is a dividend of the Iraq war.
For those who know anything at all about Libya, however, an entirely different interpretation is obvious. Libya proves that economic sanctions can work. Because of its involvement in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and other acts of terrorism, Libya was subjected to an international embargo in 1992. The embargo from all accounts deeply hurt Libya’s economy, and it produced a stark pull-back from support of terrorism on Qadhafi’s part. The Libyan government estimated that the world boycott cost Libya $37 billion. The economy remains small at about GDP $40 bn. despite an oil income, but the potential for wealth is vast. A $6 bn investment could increase Libya’s daily oil production from 1.2 million barrels a day to 2 million barrels a day. (The population at 5.5 million is so small that this increase would yield about $1600 per person per year, if the price of oil were about $28/b.) Western investors have been skittish (and US entrerpreneurs have severe legal limits on their Libyan activities), and that would have to change for oil and gas exploration to expand, e.g. There’s black gold in them thar dunes.
(Again, the hawks have explained Qadhafi’s abandonment of support for terrorism with reference to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 bombing of Tripoli; not being good at math, they don’t seem to realize that 1988 comes after 1986. One could more reasonably draw the conclusion that the US aerial strike encouraged Libya to commit more terrorism.)
The UN sanctions, but not the US ones, were eased in 1999. In the meantime, Qadhafi had become the target of the radical Islamist Anas al-Libi, a top al-Qaeda operative suspected of involvement in terrorism in East Africa, as well. After September 11, Qadhafi associated himself with the US war on terror, in hopes of seeing al-Libi killed and the Libyan branch of radical Islamism devastated.
Qadhafi brought Shukri Ghanem, a liberal economist, back from OPEC to be minister of finance, and then in summer of 2003 appointed him prime minister! Ghanem announced an extensive privatization program, in which some 300 state-owned industries will be sold off to entrepreneurs. The old mahdist socialist, Qadhafi, has begun inveighing against “unqualified employees who do not care about the interests of their country” (MEED, Aug. 29, 2003).
So, Qadhafi’s regime had been brought to the brink of possible extinction by the sanctions and by Soviet style economic sclerosis. The stars had suddenly aligned him with the US in a desperate struggle against radical Islamism and his old foe Anas al-Libi. Qadhafi apologized for Lockerbie and reportedly offered the victims $1.7 billion in compensation.
The one thing standing between Qadhafi and a return to stability for his dictatorial regime (and efflorescence for his potentially rich economy) was Washington’s new campaign against weapons of mass destruction. Libya didn’t have much of that sort of thing, though it had dabbled, and it wasn’t important to Qadhafi any more. The conflict in Chad (in which Libya is accused of using chemical weapons) had died down. Washington was making it a quid pro quo that Tripoli give these lackluster and small programs up in order for Libya to reenter the world economic system on a favorable footing. It was an easy decision.
So the real reason Qadhafi just folded is economic. And the lesson to be drawn here is that under certain circumstances, economic pressure can work, and remove the need for war.
The sanctions on Libya were very different from those on Iraq, and peace thinkers need to study why the former worked but the latter didn’t. One thing is clear; the Iraq war has hindered, not helped, US-Arab relations, and it is not the reason for which Qadhafi has made up with the West, a process that began some time ago.
One caveat: Qadhafi hasn’t offered to step down or become less dictatorial. This isn’t an advance for democracy. The Bush administration, despite its rhetoric of democratization, still has to choose in the Middle East between having malleable, known strongmen in power, or having unpredictable democracies that might elect radical Islamists or others odious to Washington. I wouldn’t bet a lot on the democratization policy. The US if anything has been urging countries like Tunisia and Yemen to be less democratic and less concerned about civil rights, in the cause of stamping out radical Islamism.