I wrote recently, and admittedly cynically, about how the West seems to go about deciding which oppressed peoples it “defends” by armed intervention, and which through platitudinous cliché. The UN approval for an enforced no-fly zone in Libya is presented as purely and simply a response to humanitarian need. That is not, sadly, what this is about.
Whilst America was seemingly sitting on the fence, a supporter of Barack Obama made a refreshingly sanguine assessment of the situation. He said plainly that American strategic interests were not particularly threatened by Colonel Gaddafi re-taking those parts of Libya over which he has recently lost control. American interests were served by “stability”. It is of little interest to America whether that stability is achieved at the expense of the peoples of the region, or not. Indeed, as I have also argued in this blog, the West generally and America in particular have been very happy indeed to support oppressive régimes where they have judged the oppression to result in a stable and predictable geo-political environment.
So what’s changed? Ignore the heartfelt pleas on behalf of the endangered people of Benghazi. Disregard the sudden emergence of humanitarian rapprochement between Britain and France. Dismiss the rhetoric about democracy. You will find no answer to the question there.
Rather, what has changed are three interconnected adjustments in the assessment of strategic advantage by different players. First, the Arab League now judges that it is time to cut Gaddafi loose. They have supported him heretofore, fêted him, and called him a brother. Now they see what is happening elsewhere in their backyards and feel worried. The calculus has changed, and they feel that naked oppression will no longer work. This is no conversion to humanitarian commitment. It is neither more, nor less, than a calculation of risk.
Second, America is playing a very canny game indeed. It knows that being in the vanguard in yet another Muslim country in order to pursue its strategic interests will isolate it further, cost it more, and reduce its influence more rapidly, than if it appears to be a reluctant guest at a democratic party.
Third, Russia and China no longer see a balance of power in the Middle East as being of much significance to them. The energy game is changing. Russia is stronger, America weaker, and China more needy than they were 10 years ago. At the same time, the Chinese economy will soon be bossing the world as the American economy has done since WW2. America and China will need to deal with their political differences directly with one another, rather than through the proxies of Middle Eastern influence.
Put all this together. The Arab League supports the no-fly zone. America can play the part of supporter rather than instigator. Russia and China do not need to play veto games in the Security Council. Hey presto, a no-fly zone is agreed in record time.
Don’t think I’m being cynical. If I were, I might also point out that Britain and France both need some external distractions just now. Protecting endangered Libyans might be just the ticket.