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4 May, 2011

Events in Libya and the “moral leadership” of the West

The policies of the Western countries aimed at promoting democratic values are not always tied to the consistent defense of those fighting for these same values under difficult circumstances

It finally happened. The Western world, which tolerated all the tricks the eccentric Libyan colonel Muammar Ghaddafi has played for the past 40 years, decided at last: Finita la comedia. Muammar Gaddafi was forgiven his support of terrorists on all continents, his direct involvement in planning terrorist attacks in the air and on the ground, the Libyan army’s interference in military conflicts in the neighboring African countries, and many other “pranks.” At one point, the US had had enough and sent its planes to bomb Tripoli, which calmed Gaddafi down for a bit. However, Western capitals have had normal international relations with the Libyan leader all these years with European presidents and premiers obediently crawling into the bedouin tent he always takes along on his trips.

The secret of the exotic dictator's condescending treatment is very simple. Libya has large oil deposits and, in light of its geographical location, its oil is very convenient to transport to Europe. France, Italy and Spain are a mere stone's throw away. When it smells oil, the democratic Europe with its human rights, rule-of-law state, civic society and European values becomes surprisingly flexible and lenient. Oil is more important to Europe than abstract political and moral ideas. Consequently, the Europeans supplied arms to Gaddafi for decades, closing their eyes to all his acts of terrorism and never denouncing him in any way, despite knowing perfectly well who he was. And suddenly the Europeans woke up, opened their eyes and saw what a horrible dictator had made a nest for himself right by their side.

The problem is not that the colonel opened fire on his opponents. He has done that in the past without causing any special drama in European media. This time however, the civil war in Libya posed a real threat to Europe’s energy supply. For example, 70% of Italy's energy needs depend on Libyan oil. The West is not paying attention to revolutions with civilian casualties in Syria and Yemen, let alone Bahrain because the first two countries have almost no oil, while the third is home to a large naval base hosting one of the United States' strategic navies.

Operation Odyssey Dawn launched by the West in Libya has come under scathing criticism in many parts of the world and not all of it is unfair. The West is being accused of hypocrisy, injustice and an extremely selective defense of the moral and political foundations it so loudly promotes. Is Gaddafi being punished for his crimes or simply because he is easy prey? Is the West really so concerned about the fate of the insurgent Libyans, or does it simply want to see a more compliant ruler in Tripoli? Why did the democratic West behave so strangely in 2008 when Russia sent tanks into Georgia and an authoritarian police state tried to destroy one of the most democratic countries on the post-Soviet landscape? There was no need to begin a war then. It would have been enough to form a squadron of British, French and Italian warships in the Black Sea to get the message across to the Cheka regime in Moscow. But the West did not want to spoil its relationship with Russia, and in this, was not guided by any general democratic considerations whatsoever.

European values are worth nothing if Europeans will not or cannot defend them. To the contrary, a refusal to firmly defend them totally discredits both the values themselves and those who formally profess them. A very unattractive image of the West is shaping in the world: while promoting European ideals of freedom, democracy, human rights, and so on, Europe yields to its egotism and easily forsakes them under the pressure of real politics. The new NATO and EU members are increasingly alarmed on this account. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are now seriously wondering whether Brussels and the entire Euro-Atlantic community will come to their defense if the Cheka officers in Moscow decide to “poke Europe with a bayonet,” to use Lenin’s expression? Who is next after Georgia? In this sense the West risks a devastating ideological failure which will be followed by economic, political and military setbacks. Moreover, Europe has an extremely burdensome “credit history” which goes back to 1938 and the infamous Munich Pact under which the democratic West gave up Czechoslovakia to Hitler after accepting the Anschluss of Austria and the Wehrmacht’s entry into the demilitarized Rheinland. This was followed by the Yalta Conference, which divided Europe for another 40 years, and the West's insipid reaction to events in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

The policies of the Western countries aimed at promoting democratic values are not always tied to the consistent defense of, or solidarity with, those who fight for these values under difficult circumstances. Rather frequently, the West thinks it is a better idea to come to terms with a dictator or to strike a deal on the promise of forging some young democracy much later in the future or to please an authoritarian or totalitarian regime in the name of an all-important goal: appeasing another Hitler, Stalin or Mao. Then a democratic society which irks the “big brother” with its very existence becomes an object of sale or exchange as its fate is decided, without any involvement of the society itself and without its consent, in backstage deals between “Führers,” “leaders of the world proletariat” and Western democratic politicians who do not view democracy on the periphery as worthy of defense at the moment. It is at times like this that the role of Western democracies becomes ominous as they essentially act as accomplices to dictators and authoritarian rulers.

Moreover, they are even provocative when they use the tactics of passively suppressing young democracies by depriving them of the right to necessary defense. This often results in the victims sometimes quite cruelly being coerced into “compromises” with their “big brothers,” concessions, unilateral disarmament, the abandonment of resistance, etc. For example, any attempts by the Czechoslovakian government to call the Sudetenland separatists to order were viewed by the Western states as non-constructive and provoking Hitler to aggression. Even now, in a world that seems to have changed for the better, Western politicians very often prefer to sacrifice their widely advertised ideals of democracy, human rights and civic society simply to avoid irritating Moscow, Beijing or some exotic third-world general. This conduct strips the West of its moral backbone and strength without which military, economic and political power becomes fairly ephemeral in the historical perspective.

Only a moral leader can be a world leader. And moral leadership is impossible without constant, real and practical, rather than verbal, defense of a great idea that is significant to mankind and serves as its guideline, symbol and banner. This idea has to be higher than any particular transient or temporary interest. By losing its moral leadership, the West is degrading and getting weaker, inevitably devolving into a province on the worldwide scale. It is rotting on the inside and showing Europe’s evident decline to humankind. You cannot have great and lofty slogans written on your flags and forsake them time after time in specific political situations. When France sold several large Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia, a Russian admiral said they would have enabled Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to overcome Georgia's resistance in several hours, rather than days. France has to realize that by taking this step it is not in the least serving the cause of freedom and democracy in the world.

The recent events in various corners of the world raise burning questions. Exactly how and at what point must the international community react when a country is under the threat of genocide or a humanitarian catastrophe? Where is the limit of state sovereignty which, if violated, sanctions international interference? How do we avoid double standards in the treatment of small and large countries?

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