March 11, 2011

The Problem of Libya is Europe's Problem

After the American Century

There are daily calls for the United States to do something dramatic to tip the balance in Libya. The clamor comes from many places, from Republicans like John McCain to some European politicians to the Libyan rebels themselves, who have asked for a "No Fly" zone. Once again, the United States is being asked to serve as the world's policeman, even though it is still not extricated from that role in Iraq or Afghanistan. And in case no one remembers, the US has a gigantic budget deficit. It actually cannot afford to do much policing right now, because the Republicans have lowered taxes to the point that the budget is deeply in the red.

Far fewer people call for the EU to do something, perhaps because the EU has never managed to create a common, visible, and enforceable foreign policy. Since Libya is literally on the doorstep, almost as much as Kosovo, one might think the Europeans had learned something from its inaction in that earlier crisis. Apparently not.

This would seem to leave NATO as the most plausible actor, if anyone is going to do anything. But NATO apparently is going to wait to see if the UN gives it permission to do anything. Meanwhile, the Libyan dictator is crushing the rebels, relying in part on mercenaries. He is bombing civilians and committing crimes against humanity (as he has been doing for 42 years, actually.) 

It was so much easier in the case of Egypt or Tunisia, where the local population was able to throw off their dictators with little bloodshed. But the problem with Libya (and also with Iran) is that the government is quite willing to imprison, torture, and slaughter its own people in order to remain in power. Europeans need to stand up and represent something in the world. There are many things that can be done short of military action. These include breaking diplomatic relations, freezing Libyan assets in European banks, blockading Libyan ports, stopping all flights to and from Libya except those helping foreign workers to escape, refusing to buy Libyan oil until the present government abdicates, and so on.

So far, however, the EU is acting not like a single power but like a herd of cats, all going off in different directions. This sort of thing was supposed to end with the Treaty of Lisbon, but the crisis in Libya has exposed the EU's lack of central authority and its inability to respond effectively to events on its own doorstep. This should not be a problem for the United States at all. The EU has all the resources and military might necessary to deal with Libya. Perhaps it will pull itself together and do something before it is too late.
27 Oct. 2011:  I am pleased that Europe did rise to the challenge, and used NATO to back the democratic forces that threw out the Libyan dictator. Next, can Europe also help Libya to a lasting peace?