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Appearances – I explain Libya to Romanians

Much to my surprise, I am apparently considered a pundit in Romania, where a website called interviewed me about the U.S. role in Libya.

The interview as published will not be that illuminating to those of you who don’t actually speak Romanian, although between remembering what I wrote in English and recognizing Latin roots I was able to stumble through it myself. (N.B. Romanian is a Romance language, not a Slavic one. The people of Romania would appreciate your remembering that). But I’ve appended my English original, untranslated and unedited, below:

> People here are still confused about the war in Libya even though Romanian president announced on Tuesday that we’re sending a warship to the Mediterranean at NATO’s request.

First of all, my thanks to Romania for sending a ship. (The frigate “King Ferdinand,” I understand — correct?). Libya is essentially a string of cities along the coastal highway, flanked on the one side by the desert and the other side by the sea. Blockading arms from reaching the Qaddafi regime is important, but even more important is securing the rebels’ seaward flank, preventing Qaddafi’s navy from bombarding rebel cities or, worse yet, cutting off food supplies to Benghazi, which would cause a humanitarian crisis — as is already happening in other rebel cities besieged by the regime.

> Why exactly is happening in Libya: is it a fight for democracy or just an oil war? And why Libya and not Bahrain or Yemen? 

Libya only provides two percent of the world’s oil. That’s enough for the civil war there to cause turmoil in world markets, but it’s not enough to lure a superpower into invading. (See a useful analysis from my former employer, National Journal). The United States alone produces five times as much! If we were desperate for another 1.79 million barrels a day, we could simply relax environmental regulations and allow more off-shore drilling in our own home waters, where American companies would get 100 percent of the profits and there would be no need for risky military action. Even if American leaders were for some reason so foolish as to wish to wage war for Libyan oil, the public would hardly support them after our miserable experience in Iraq — which has 34 percent more oil than Libya, by the way — and the consequences in the next election could be severe.

No, this is not “just an oil war.” I would say the United States is motivated by four things, in the following order of importance:

1) Preventing a humanitarian crisis, not just from Qaddafi’s indiscriminate sniper and artillery attacks on densely populated areas, not just from starvation in besieged rebel cities, but especially from the bloody purges that would inevitably follow his victory. 

2) Ending instability in a major Arab country, especially while both its neighbors — Tunisia and Egypt — are going through a delicate transition to greater democracy.

3) Replacing a notoriously erratic and anti-Western tyrant with what we hope will be a more friendly, more reliable, and more democratic regime.

4) Ending instability in world oil markets. From President Obama’s point of view, who profits from Libya’s oil is much less important than that rising oil prices do not threaten the global economic recovery and raise prices at the gas pump for American voters.

Do you see, now, why the United States is intervening only in Libya, and not in Bahrain or Yemen? In neither of those countries has the situation degenerated into civil war that threatens to cause a humanitarian crisis (our #1 reason for intervening in Libya) or regional instability (reason #2). In neither is the current ruler anti-American or his opponents pro-American (reason #3); indeed, we are trying to use our longstanding relationship with these leaders to urge them not to commit atrocities. That said, the situation in Yemen may well deteriorate, but so far it does not cry out for intervention.

> Qaddafi said a couple of times that al Qaeda is behind the revolt in his country. Is he right?

Qaddaffy Duck is ludicrously wrong. He is either delusional or lying or both — as usual. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have never been strong in Libya.

Indeed, after ten years of vigorous law enforcement and counter-terrorist efforts by America and its allies, al-Qaeda today is a secondary player even in its home regions in Afghanistan and Pakistan; it is a third-tier player in other countries where it has a significant presence, such as Yemen; and in places such as Libya, it is a weak force indeed. Al-Qaeda has neither the armed men nor the popular support to lead a popular revolution, and a popular revolution is precisely what is happening in Libya today. (Albeit there are also elements of regional rivalry between regime-controlled Tripolitainia in the west and rebel Cyrenaica in the east).

> How can we be sure that the rebels are free of terrorist elements?

We know they’re not free of terrorist elements: The Telegraph, a conservative British papers is already reporting that their ranks include some two dozen fighters linked to al-Qaeda. I’m sure there are more rebels than that with al-Qaeda affiliations.

But so what? Are we really threatened by two dozen men? Even if the Telegraph has only found, say, 10% of the terrorists, they still number only a few hundred among thousands of rebel fighters.  And pro-Western elements are strong, if not dominant, in the rebel leadership, so al-Qaeda can hardly expect much support. Disorder in a Muslim country always gives al-Qaeda an opening, but I think it is far more likely that whoever wins — rebels or regime — the Libyan government will turn on any al-Qaeda elements after the civil war ends and wipe them out both to remove a threat to state authority and to make a bid for Western support.

> What happens if the rebels win? What happens if Col Qaddafi wins?

If the rebels win, we can expect a messy, turbulent, but profoundly promising transition to a new government with at least some elements of democracy. At worst, the pro-democratic elements will fail to maintain order, and the military will stage a coup — but at least the new dictator will be sane, unlike Qaddafi. At best, Libya will make a slow and uneven transition to democracy. In either case, the new government will be more pro-Western than Qaddafi.

If Qaddafi wins, then his security forces will imprison or simply slaughter any former rebels and those associated with them, to include their wives and children. (Qaddafi’s promise of amnesty is worthless). Any pro-democratic forces in Libya will be exterminated and the prospect of progress set back by a generation. And, on the international scene, Qaddafi will abandon his recent efforts to appease the West and become more hostile and erratic than ever.

The good outcome is worth fighting for, and the bad outcome is worth fighting to prevent.

> How will the Libyan crisis affect the oil prices?

It’s already affecting global oil prices: Again, take a look at that National Journal article. But the impact is marginal. This is hardly a time that the global economy can afford any increases in oil prices, but so far the impact of the Libyan war is something we can endure.

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