Gwynne Dyer: Why do western nations feel compelled to intervene in Libya?

They have committed themselves to a war, but they have no plans for what happens after March 26. They swear that they will never put ground troops into Libya, so their strategy consists solely of hoping that air strikes on Colonel Gadhafi’s air defence systems (and on his ground forces when they can be targeted without killing civilians) will persuade his troops to abandon him. They don’t even have an agreed command structure.

So why is this “coalition of the willing” (which has yet to find a proper name for itself) doing this? Don’t say “it’s all about oil”. That’s just lazy thinking: all the Western oil majors are already back in Libya. They have been back ever since the great reconciliation between their governments and Gadhafi in 2003.

That deal was indeed driven partly by oil, although also in part by Western concerns about Libya’s alleged nuclear ambitions. (Gadhafi played his cards well there, because he never really had a viable nuclear weapons program.) But do you seriously think that Western governments have now launched this major military operation merely to improve the contractual terms for a few of their oil companies?

Maybe it’s just about local political advantage, then. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was the driving force behind this intervention, and he faces a re-election battle next year. Is he seeking credit with French voters for this “humanitarian” intervention? Implausible, since it’s the right-wing vote he must capture to win, and saving the lives of Arab foreigners does not rank high in the priorities of the French right.

Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain was the other prime mover in the Libyan intervention. Unless the coalition government he leads collapses (which is quite unlikely), he won’t even have to face the electorate again until 2014. So what would be the point in seeking political popularity with a military intervention now? Even if that were a sure route to popularity in Britain, which it is not.

As for Barack Obama, he spent weeks trying to avoid an American military commitment in Libya, and his secretary of defence, Robert Gates, was outspoken in denouncing the idea. Yet there they all are, intervening: France, Britain, the United States, and half a dozen other Western countries. Strikingly unaccompanied by Arab military forces, or indeed by anybody else’s.

There is no profit in this for the West, and there is a high probability (of which the interveners are well aware) that it will all end in tears. There is the danger of “mission creep,” there is the risk that the bombing will kill Libyan civilians, and there is the fact that many of the countries that voted for Security Council Resolution 1973, or at least abstained from voting against it, are already peeling away from the commitment it implied.

They willed the end: to stop Gadhafi from committing more massacres. They even supported or did not oppose the means: the use of “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, which in diplomatic-speak means force. But they cannot stomach the reality of Western aircraft bombing another third-world country, however decent the motives and however deserving the targets.

So why have the Western countries embarked on this quixotic venture? Indians feel no need to intervene, nor do Chinese or Japanese. Russians, South Africans, and Brazilians can watch the killing in Libya on their televisions and deplore Gadhafi’s behaviour without wanting to do something about it.

Even Egyptians, who are fellow Arabs, Libya’s next-door neighbours, and the beneficiaries of a similar but successful democratic revolution just last month, haven’t lifted a finger to help the Libyan revolutionaries. They don’t lack the means—only a small fraction of their army could put an end to Gadhafi’s regime in days—but they lack the will. Indeed, they lack any sense of responsibility for what happens to people beyond their own borders.

That’s normal. What is abnormal is a domestic politics in which the failure to intervene in Rwanda to stop the genocide is still remembered and debated 15 years later. African countries don’t hold that debate; only Western countries do. Western countries also feel guilty about their slow and timorous response to the slaughter in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Nobody else does.

Cynicism is a necessary tool when dealing with international affairs, but sometimes you have to admit that countries are acting from genuinely selfless and humanitarian motives. Yes, I know, Vietnam, and Iraq, and a 100 years of U.S. meddling in Latin America, and 500 years of European imperial plunder all around the world. I did say “sometimes”. But I think this is one of those times.

Why is it only Western countries that believe they have a duty to intervene militarily, even in places where they have no interests at stake, merely to save lives? My guess is that it’s a heritage of the great wars they fought in the 20th century, and particularly of the war against Hitler, in which they told themselves (with some justification) that they were fighting pure evil—and eventually discovered that they were also fighting a terrible genocide.

This does not mean that all or most of their military adventures overseas are altruistic, nor does it mean that their current venture will end well. In fact, it probably won’t. No good deed goes unpunished.




Mar 25, 2011 at 11:53am

Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have both promised or sent fighter planes to help enforce the no-fly zone according to reports here in the MENA region.

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Welcome to the 21st Century

Mar 25, 2011 at 4:16pm

Perhaps the "World" once again, failed to explain, using no uncertain terms and long before this sad Libyan episode that "sheep" are truly on their own, regardless of their lofty ideals or the depth of innocent blood.

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Charles Martel

Mar 25, 2011 at 5:55pm

“Why is it only Western countries that believe they have a duty to intervene militarily, even in places where they have no interests at stake, merely to save lives?”

To enforce the new found ideology of “Totalitarian Humanism”, that’s why.

From the article: “totalitarian humanism is an intellectual and ideological movement among contemporary Western elites that serves as a replacement for older worldviews such as Christianity, nationalism, cultural traditionalism, Eurocentrism, or even Marxism. Such features of modern life as political correctness and victimology serve as a representation of the totalitarian humanist approach to domestic policy. The present war against the Libyan state provides an illustration of what the totalitarian humanist approach to foreign policy and international relations involves.”

Qaddafi isn’t playing ball. He has neither adopted “democratic capitalism” or joined the “international community.” The religious, conservative, patriarchal, and even nationalistic regime of his is anathema to things like secularism, globalism, and humanism. To the Western elites he is an infidel who must be punished or destroyed.

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Welcome to the 21st Century

Mar 25, 2011 at 8:25pm

Chuck, let's not lose sight of a simple, central premise behind this slaughter of innocent men, women and children,

Qaddafi is a nut...a very rich one.

Trying to attach a deeper meaning to this deadly Libyan farce lends credibility where none exists, other than that which can be purchased with a brick of gold.

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Charles Martel

Mar 26, 2011 at 1:54am

Welcome mat,

I agree that Qaddafi is a nut, and a rich one at that.

But that alone is not some sort of "simple premise" as to what's going on.

Very few nut-jobs posses enough marbles up there to effectively play the game of Realpolitik for the past few decades as he has done.

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Ray Joseph Cormier

Mar 26, 2011 at 5:23am

This IS the question for our times as you so succinctly phrase it.

"The question President Obama should be asking himself is: given our $1.4 trillion deficit, can we really afford another little war whose rational is unclear and outcome uncertain?
The first salvos of this latest Mideast crusade have already cost taxpayers something like $100 million. That’s just for openers."

That figure is probably closer to half a $billion or more by now, not including higher gas prices for consumers. What's the cost of only the jet fuel for the big bombers to fly from mainland USA to Libya and return the same day? Is that expense really necessary when the US has bases in Europe and elsewhere in the area? Wars are not free just to watch on TV. The People in whose name they are fought will have to pay sooner or later, one way or another.

The same thing is true for CanaDa.

It is now 26 years ago the political atmospheres of the time were so poisoned, it appeared the US and the Soviets were heading for a clash for the 1st time since the Cuban Missile crisis.
I was moved to make this Public statement totally related to the question you pose. Please don't misinterpret my intentions in posting this. I am well aware all of this is greater than I, but it is recorded in Time. This was long before the world was being held hostage to the War on Terrorism, Libya being the latest phase of that ongoing War that will expand to it's illogical conclusion - Armageddon, the war to end all wars and possibly humanity itself.

On Remembrance Day 1985, in the presence of The Governor-General of Canada, The Prime Minister and other government Leaders, the Military, Ambassadors of the Nations and 25,000 people Cormier publicly declared,

“Hear O people and Nations, even to the ends of the Earth, the Word of the Lord God who is, and was, and is to come, The Almighty. The Lord has a controversy with the people.

Do you do well to honour the dead, and yet, deny the God of the Living? Why do you follow the vain traditions of men, and make of no effect, the principles of God?

You come here for one hour one day a year in a great show of public patriotism, and then forgetting, go back to work and make the same careless mistakes made by the generations prior to the 1st and 2nd World Wars.

Hitler was killed, but it’s his legacy that remains. A Soviet-American military-industrial complex consuming $trillions of dollars every year, holding the entire World hostage”¦”¦”¦”¦”

“Hostage” was the last word he said perched on a bus shelter roof, as police got up and grabbed his megaphone. He was arrested for shouting, causing a disturbance, convicted and fined $250. He appealed without a lawyer to The Supreme Court of Canada.

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Philip Reid

Mar 26, 2011 at 8:55am

Ha! Ha! Ha!
If this article was true the West would now be fighting in, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

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Welcome to the 21st Century

Mar 26, 2011 at 9:48am


didn't say he was stupid...

During civil demonstrations, "someone" let loose the "hounds" upon defenseless men, women, and children in Libya.

Then "someone" blames the slaughter on the actions of others to justify a response.

The "simple premise" is, who would one believe possess a synergy of madness and brilliance, based on the information at hand.

Personally I don't think the Libyan civilian population at large or NATO has little to gain from demonstrating a similar psychosis.

The brilliance is, Qaddafi has convinced many others to think otherwise.

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Mar 26, 2011 at 12:00pm

uh...hate to disappoint but the more relevant question is that in a world populated by scores of despots of qaddafi's ilk, and the attendant humanitarian atrocities that ensue, what are the commonalities around the west's selective inclination to intervene....answer: oil or access to it....lazy thinking aside, occam's razor occasionally does prevail

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Mar 26, 2011 at 1:07pm

Imo, the 'coalition' is intervening for two reasons - ego and votes.

They have traditionally almost always butted in to countries that occupy the headlines on a daily basis (Rwanda, unfortunately, did not occupy the headlines until the massacre had started). Especially in the Middle East.

It also makes them (and hopefully their voters) forget about how crappy their economies still are from all their irresponsible spending that has done virtually nothing but delay the inevitable and prop up their government debts.

Fact is, the power of the U.S., France and G.B. are on the wane. Not gigantically - but slowly. And surely they know it (to some extent). And using their militaries to bolster their international positions is one of the last things they can still do.

And please, do not give me this crap about them being moralistic.

Where were they when Rwandans slaughtered 800,000 of their countrymen/women? They pulled out.
And where are they when Zimbabwe is a total mess? Not to mention all the starvation and misery that is going on in many countries around the world? They don't seem to be lifting a finger to help them. And why? Because the media and their voters do not care enough about them.

The US/GB/France intervention in Libya is not about morales. It's about ego and votes.

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