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Commentary: Is Libya a ‘splendid and unselfish’ act by America?

POSTED: April 10, 2011 12:30 a.m.
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Anna Rulska

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In the past couple of weeks, we have heard elaborate diatribes from politicians on both sides of the aisle about the costs, benefits, and potential perils of the U.S. engagement in Libya. For the common folk like you and me, the question boils down to the basics - how is this going to impact me? Is it in the United States' interest to get bogged down in the Libyan civil war?

Let's look at both the pragmatic and moral implications of the U.S. actions in regards to Libya, starting with the basic economics.

The U.S. and EU Trade

When mentioning trade, Americans generally think of all the cheap T-shirts and plastic toys from China. However, few of us realize that the largest trade partner of the U.S. is the European Union, which accounts for over 20 percent of the U.S. trade, with the flow of goods at over half a trillion dollars a year.

But that's only a fraction of the Transatlantic economy. About 75 percent of U.S. Foreign Direct Investment is located in the European Union. Add to that the flow of services between the east and the west coast of the Atlantic which takes care of another third of a trillion dollars a year.

The European Union, on the other hand, is heavily dependent on imports of crude oil and natural gas from Libya. Accounting for the EU members' imports of Libyan oil, Ireland tops the list with 23 percent, followed by Austria with 21 percent, Italy with 22 percent, France with 16 percent, Spain with 13 percent, and Portugal with 11 percent--just to name a few. These numbers come from the CIA World Fact Book, U.S. Department of Commerce, International Energy Agency and the EU Commission.

So what? one might ask. Well, with that heavy of an economic interdependence, if there are problems on one side of the pond, they will be felt on the other side as well. As we have seen in the past month, the price of gas in Europe has been rising exponentially, reaching over $8.50/gallon in France and over $11.00/gallon in Great Britain. With the price of gas, the prices of goods and services are going up as well, causing wrinkles in European economy and resounding loudly in our own.

While the speculators are having a heyday with the prices of crude oil in Europe and the U.S., I was appalled to see the prices of green pepper at Wal-Mart go up to $1.34/each.

The bare numbers, then, give us the general picture - it is in the U.S. interest for the European economy stays stable and healthy. After all, the EU as a whole is responsible for 20 percent of the world's economy, followed closely by the U.S. with a bit over 19 percent. And to make sure that the two economic giants are operating at its optimum potential, Libya needs to be stabilized.

Building Credibility

"Damned if you do, damned if you don't!" This phrase comes to mind almost any time when debating U.S. intervention anywhere in the world. The Libyan case is no different. While some argue that the U.S. is exercising colonialism at its best, others posit that President Obama was not quick enough with taking action. Just can't please them all!

In the case of Libya, President Obama has chosen the most optimal course of action for the U.S., even if he was quite subpar on communicating his motivations. While Washington froze Qaddafi's assets relatively early, the responsibility for the intervention in the Libyan civil war rests on the shoulders of international organizations, namely the U.N. and NATO; in the same time, nobody can blame Washington for not caring and or not contributing to the joint effort to protect and stabilize.

The U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 reads: "Recalling the condemnation by the League of Arab States, the African Union, and the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference... authorizes Member States... to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under the threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya."

To add to the list of the organizations across the world that supported the U.N. resolution, we are also witnessing an increase in appreciation for the U.S. in the Arab world. As Dr. Shibley Telhami, a renowned expert on the Middle East pointed out on Politico at the end of March: "Never in modern history has an Arab ruler been almost universally reviled by both Arab governments and the Arab public. Even among those who oppose the West ... hatred of Qaddafi trumps anger with the West."

In other words, this time around, the U.S. is not acting unilaterally, it is not pushing for its own interests, and it is not carrying the costs of the actions alone.

Rather, by acting under the auspices of the U.N. and delegating responsibilities to the European Allies, the U.S. is building its credibility as a cooperative and dependable member of the international community. And let's not forget that an important part of foreign policy is perception: if you're one of the cool kids on the block, others will want to play with you nice.

Morality and Pragmatism

The bottom line here touches on the basic prevention of a major humanitarian crisis, promotion of human rights and support for democratization, while stabilizing a region vital to the world economy. It is time we finally learned from the lessons of Bosnia, Rwanda, or Cambodia: It is not the wisest plan of action to sit and wait for governments to kill increasing numbers of their own people. Not only is it immoral, but for those of us who like to see pragmatic profits, it is really not beneficial either. Domestic instability and terror have a tendency to increase the activity of transnational criminal groups and cause mass flight of people across borders.

Libya is no different. Since the beginning of riots against Qaddafi, the flow of Libyans out of the country has impacted heavily neighboring Egypt, who just recently held its first democratic referendum, not to mention the European countries-and we can already imagine what that means for their economy.

The current numbers on the death toll in Libya, including civilians, protesters, and rebels vary. As of March 7, the International Criminal Court reported 10,000 dead, the U.N. over 1,000 killed, and the National Transitional Council, a body established by the opposition to Qaddafi, points to 8,000 dead as of March 20.

As I am pondering those numbers, the words of President Reagan, who would be celebrating his 100th birthday this year, come to mind: "We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II ... Pope Pius XII said: ‘The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions. Into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.'"

Let's leave it at that.

Anna M. Rulska, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science at North Georgia College & State University.



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