The role of the West in Libya

In the aftermath of the Libyan revolution, in the course of which over 250,000 Libyan people were killed and countless numbers wounded, Western leaders have reacted with the hubris characteristic of post-imperialist countries, asserting the humanitarian nature of their mission whilst admonishing other totalitarian African leaders with the warning that, it will be ‘their turn next’. This unbridled arrogance, typical of Western democratised states – an arrogance, seemingly accepted and even condoned by today’s society – would perhaps be acceptable if this was really the case. But is it? Have we really abandoned the self-glorifying egotism of our colonial past?

Western nations seem all too quick to point out the vital role that they have played in the successful overthrow of the Libyan regime. Already the revolution is set to be commandeered by American and European governments as a piece of political propaganda, with many heralding the uprising in terms that seem to denote it as a foreign policy success. Barack Obama, who will be running for re-election in the presidential elections next year, has been quick to highlight the role of American troops in bringing Gaddafi’s forty-two year reign of oppression to what was a brutal and bloody end. He is not alone: politicians both sides of the Atlantic have been taking a clearly partisan approach to the death of Colonel Gaddafi. In his appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight, Senator John McCain took pains to point out the ‘instrumental’ role that British and French troops had, along with NATO, in ‘leading’ the fight against Gaddafi’s supporters. However it must be surely be argued that the appropriation of the successes of Libyan revolutionaries, of the Libyan people, in order to bolster one’s own political standing, is not only unacceptable but arguably an insult to those who fought and died in the name of freedom and liberation. Such assertions diminish the role of the Libyan people, belittling not only their achievements but also undermining the significant role that they had to play in determining their own country’s future.

It would be naive and undoubtedly idealistic to presume that the coalition of international forces did not play a significant role in ensuring that the revolution reached a successful conclusion. It cannot be refuted that the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya and the establishment of naval blockades by the international community certainly weakened the ability of Gaddafi’s supporters to enact reprisals on the civilian population. Yet the role of Libyan people is seemingly lost amongst arguably exaggerated claims of international benevolence. Let us not forget that it was the Libyan people, not the international community, who filled the streets of their country earlier this year in demonstration against the repressive measures of the Gaddafi regime. It was the Libyan people who endured, not only the violent and bloody reprisals of the Libyan government itself, but who also suffered as a direct result of raids led by international forces, during which hundreds of innocent civilians were killed.

The British and American press have undoubtedly portrayed their role in Libya as a humanitarian mission and yet it is impossible to ignore the fact that Libya is conveniently also home to the largest oil reserves in the African continent. Under the Gaddafi regime oil production was tightly regulated, meaning that many areas of the country remained uncharted as possible sources of further energy. However with the successful overthrow of the regime and the promise of further exploration, the discovery of additional stores is a real and extremely viable possibility. Tapping into these reserves would undoubtedly reduce the price of oil in the West, resulting in big profits for European companies such as the UK based BP. For a humanitarian venture, it cannot be ignored that Western involvement in Libya seems remarkably conducive to European and American economic interests. Added to this, the claims made by the director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, Nicolas Beger, that Europe’s response to the mounting refugee crisis on Libya’s borders “has been abysmal”, the nature of certain aspects of international involvement in the country must be called into question. If the upholding of freedom and democracy is so important to countries such as Britain and America, then why have we not witnessed Western intervention in countries such as Syria and North Korea, where people are suffering similar violations of their basic human rights?

It was “in [the US’s] national interest to act”, Barack Obama declared, on the launch of American military operations in Libya and it seems, in reality, it is just that. National interest is now, as ever, the rule of the day – a sign perhaps, that we have not moved as far away from our colonial heritage as we might think. It was self-interest, rather than genuine human compassion that gave birth to international involvement in Libya: to represent it in any other light fails to do justice to the bravery and determination of the Libyan people. That is not to say that Western involvement didn’t help bring the civil war to a swift conclusion but it would be nice if, for a change, politicians would present the uprising for what it was, rather than what they want it to be.  It was not a success of western foreign policy but a triumph of freedom over repression and a victory for the Libyan people.

Sarah Murphy

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