Faced with the choice between short-term stability offered by a military strong-man or the long-term stability that would emerge from a democratic revolution, the West has long backed dictators in key resource supplying third-world nations. As the West backs away from saving the Libyan rebellion, it appears that little has changed.
The West’s primary interest in the Middle East is a continuous (ideally, growing) supply of cheap oil and natural gas. The uncertainty and violence of revolutions, and worries over who might win democratic elections, casts doubt over that supply, adding a large ‘risk premium’ to the price of oil. The fact that the spread of popular rebellions against dictators in the Arab world has been widely referred to as ‘contagion’ speaks for itself.
The so-called ‘colour revolutions’ swept the Russian periphery states in 2004-05, starting in Serbia, achieving their most famous outcome in the Ukraine, before being stopped dead by the massacre by government forces of protesters in the Uzbek city of Andijan. Likewise, the Arab revolts started in Tunisia, grabbed world attention in Egypt, and will coming to a screeching halt if Gaddafi is allowed to prevail in Libya.
Despite all the talk that Gaddafi had to go and of not allowing a Balkans-style conflict to develop between the tribe of Libya, the West seems happy to let Gaddafi roll back the rebels. He has crushed unrest in Tripoli (which must mean many a huge number are dead) and is now destroying rebel-held towns with heavy weapons while it appears that most of the army sits on the sidelines and lets amateurs do the fighting for the rebels. Gaddafi may never be able to retake the seat of the rebellion, Benghazi, but he will massacre the rebels in any town he does retake, as he already has in Zawiyah.
Following the West’s failure to stop genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s, the UN developed the ‘Responsibility to Protect’. This reversed one of the tenants of the Westphalian state system by reinstating the old concept that a government’s right to govern its own people as it wishes is not absolute and other governments may depose a depraved ruler to protect the people. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s all talk.
The failure of the West to help the Libyan people overthrow Gaddafi will have far-reaching consequences. I’ll bet you anything that, if the West was blowing any Libyan fighter-bombers out of the sky that were foolish enough to fly right now, we would see the rebellions in Bahrain and Yemen redoubled, and we would have seen those tens of thousands in the streets of Riyadh who, instead, cowered in their homes. Of course, the Western leaders know that too, which is precisely why they’re talking big and doing nothing.