Thursday, March 24, 2011

The War Next Door (Part 4)

Except for the island of Lampedusa, Libya isn't quite as close to Italy as it looks on the map, but it's close enough. And the fighting is real. People are being killed. It's just that foreign journalists are few, so the reporting "on the ground" is limited. In view of history (and Libya's regime is actually a relic of the Cold War), it's no surprise that the countries seeking to save Libyan lives can't quite agree on how to do it.

Over the years, Colonel Gaddafi's behavior has been as fickle as the European spelling of his surname. Despite moments of civility and even cooperation, he has piloted a repressive regime for four decades. Until now, many nations - especially Italy, his closest European friend - have tolerated his antics for two principal reasons:

1) Despite the funding of terrorists in various countries over the years, nowadays the Colonel generally keeps his aggression within his own borders. (He may have helped stir up trouble to the south of Libya, but he hasn't literally invaded places like Tunisia or Egypt, while Saddam Hussein did attack and "annex" Kuwait.) Apart from internal repression, he has actually decreased his support for armed violence in recent years, being eclipsed by others to the point that, by comparison, he often looks more like a crazed eccentric than a dangerous dictator. Some of his domestic economic policies have met with moderate success. Well, he has had forty years and plenty of oil profits, so we'd expect him to get something right...

2) The oil and gas reserves in Libya make it a worthwhile trading partner for wealthy countries, and Italy wants to maintain the advantage (over France, Britain, et al.) which resulted from the signing of a number of contracts and treaties with Libya in 2009 and 2010.

Those contracts are obviously at risk now, so Italy's foreign minister and defense minister are both trying to understate the country's contribution to the international military effort while at the same time insisting that NATO - rather than rival petroleum customer France - take control of the action as soon as possible. A contradiction: trying to "save" the convenient relationship with Gadaffi with one hand while hedging Italy's bets (as a responsible "team player" of NATO) with the other.

The Craxi government played the same two hands (or two faces) back in the 1980s. One of the reasons that Italy belatedly acknowledged its war crimes in Libya was to secure a better trade relationship. Of course, the French, Americans and British have also cultivated diplomatic and commercial ties with the Colonel in recent times. And that's the point. The eclectic, contradictory foreign policies of all these countries, and many others, leave much to be desired. Italy just happens to be the most obvious (and geographically closest) example. Expedience and opportunism are poor substitutes for statesmanship and a healthy respect for human rights.

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