The Impotence of the West

by editor | 23rd February 2011 7:58 am

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Bloodshed in Libya
By Carsten Volkery in London

Condemnation of the violence in Libya has been universal in Western capitals. But dictator Moammar Gadhafi shows no signs of calling a halt to the brutal repression of protests in the country. The West simply has no leverage in Libya.
Western politicians have certainly not been at a loss for words in recent days. Over and over, they have sharply condemned the brutal attacks launched by the Libyan military and foreign mercenaries on demonstrators in Bengazi and Tripoli.
The “unacceptable bloodshed” must come to an end, demanded US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Universal rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly apply in Libya too, she said. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle echoed her comments, saying “should Libya continue the use of violence against its own people, sanctions will become unavoidable.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who became the first Western head of government to visit Cairo following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, likewise denounced the ongoing violence, saying: “I condemn absolutely what I’ve seen in Libya, where the level of violence committed by the regime on the people is completely unacceptable.”

But what can the West really achieve? So far, the collective indignation from all manner of government officials in Europe and North America has had precious little effect. The war being waged in the streets of Libya by dictator Moammar Gadhafi against his own people is continuing. Once again, violence erupted across the country on Tuesday.

Those familiar with the Gadhafi regime are hardly surprised: The West, after all, has little influence in Libya. Oil riches make the North African country largely independent and diplomatic relations have long been difficult at best, particularly with the US. Whereas the administration of President Barack Obama had a certain amount of leverage with the Egyptian military during protests there, Washington has little contact with Tripoli. Indeed, the country spent years on the black list of states which support terrorism. Only in 2008 were diplomatic relations re-established.

Never Even Talked to Gadhafi

“We don’t have personal relations at a high level. As far as I know, President Obama has never even talked to Colonel Gaddafi,” David Mack, a former senior US diplomat who dealt with Libya, told the Washington Post. At the moment, the US doesn’t even have an ambassador in Libya. The last one was temporarily recalled after the WikiLeaks revelations.

That doesn’t just make it harder to assess the situation in Libya — reliable information is in short supply. The US government is now also forced to rely on its European allies to exert pressure on Libya. Several EU states have working relationships with Gadhafi, not least as part of regular regional cooperation among the Mediterranean states.

But the EU, once again, is divided in its approach. On Monday, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels strongly condemned the regime’s crackdown on protestors. But they weren’t able to agree on any sanctions. Demands for punitive measures made by Finland and other Scandinavian countries were rejected.

Italy Rejects Sanctions

Italy in particular has resisted sanctions because the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi doesn’t want to endanger its close economic ties with its former colony. It is also worried about a new wave of refugees from North Africa. Gadhafi had threatened to open the borders if the EU sides with the demonstrators. That is seen as an empty threat in Brussels, because Gadhafi has already lost control of his nation, but Italy is adamant in opposing sanctions.

The EU is talking about imposing a ban on Gadhafi’s family from entering the 27-nation bloc, and freezing Libyan government assets abroad. The German government believes such measures could be agreed to without Italy’s support. “We have to acknowledge that not everyone wants to express themselves in the same way at present,” said Westerwelle. That made it all the more important for the other EU partners to agree on a “clear language,” he added.

However, it may well be that the proposed sanctions fail to impress the dictator. In the absence of a common EU stance, several European governments are trying to bring pressure to bear through bilateral channels. British Foreign Minister William Hague spoke to Gadhafi’s second son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, and demanded an end to the bloodshed. The British government is one of Libya’s main contacts in the West since Tony Blair, Britain’s Prime Minister at the time, visited Gadhafi in 2004, effectively lifting the Libyan leader’s pariah status and securing his cooperation in the fight against Islamist terrorism.

In recent years, Gadhafi’s son has been an important link between the two governments. He owns a house in London, is in his mid-30s and studied for a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics (LSE) from 2003 until 2008. He was regarded as a friend as the West and as a reformer, and he moved in the highest circles in London. His contacts included Prince Andrew, Britain’s Special Representative for International Trade and Investment, and former Economy Minister Peter Mandelson. Blair even called Gadhafi junior a “family friend.”

Calls for UN to Impose No-Fly Zone Over Libya
But Saif al-Islam seems to have turned radical in response to the uprising. London observers could hardly believe their ears when he declared in a speech on Sunday that the Gadhafis would fight “to the last bullet.” The LSE responded by saying it would return a major donation by the Gadhafi Foundation. Saif’s former academic advisor at the LSE, the well-known politics professor David Held, said he was “appalled” by the speech, and that his former student had become “the enemy of ideals he once proclaimed.”

The most recent reports from Libya suggest that the regime will stick to its tough line. Libya’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, demanded more drastic sanctions against his country. He appealed to the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya in order to stop the air strikes against the demonstrators and to disrupt the army’s re-supply. Dabbashi is one of dozen of diplomats who have thrown their weight behind the revolt against Gadhafi.

The Security Council will meet on Tuesday. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had a 40-minute phone conversation with Gadhafi on Monday and demanded that he stop the attacks on demonstrators — to no avail. The question now is how long Gadhafi can keep on waging war against his people.

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