I sincerely hope that the protests in Libya will end like the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. But I also know that it would be shortsighted – sadly so! – to draw direct conclusions about the future of the revolution in Tripoli from these earlier protests. The ultimate outcome remains uncertain. Tragedy is as likely in Libya as is the triumph of democracy. But one thing is certain: During the protests in Egypt, the US remained on the fence for too long. In Libya, by contrast, it is the countries of the European Union who are being exposed as hypocrites.
The value of friendship
Last June, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi staged an elaborate welcome ceremony for his dear Libyan friend Gaddafi. He did not even find it necessary to conceal his hospitality and force Gaddafi to enter through the back door. On the contrary: Berlusconi ordered a state banquet, and even had three Italian warplanes draw a big Libyan flag into the sky with smoke flares. And when Gaddafi wanted to instruct a crowd of beautiful young Italian women about the advantages of Islam and chastity, Berlusconi – who has acquired considerable expertise in interacting with this particular constituency – paid a “hostess agency” to round up seven hundred adoring female fans for him. Even now, Berlusconi is standing by his friend. When he was asked this weekend whether he had spoken to Gaddafi on the phone to voice his concern about violence in Libya, Berlusconi responded that he did not want to “disturb” poor Gaddafi during this time of unrest.
The friendship between the Italian prime minister and the Libyan dictator is driven by self-interest. Libyans, made rich by oil exports, were supposed to invest their new wealth in Italy. And in return for Italian hospitality, Gaddafi agreed to curb the flow of African migrants from the Libyan coasts to nearby Sicily.
One might object that Berlusconi is no typical European Head of State. Thankfully, this is (still) true. But other EU countries have embarrassed themselves in remarkably similar ways: just consider the lavish reception to Paris which Nicolas Sarkozy bestowed upon Gaddafi in 2007. In fact, in its dealings with Libya, many a European country has sacrificed human rights and democratic ideals to advance its narrow self-interests.
Take England as an example. Last year, the British government authorized arms exports to Libya with a total monetary value of 200 million pounds. Even evidently worrying purchases like “surveillance and targeting equipment” or “crowd control ammunition” got the green light from Westminster.
What is more, all of Europe – not just Italy – is scared of illegal African migrants. Libya’s best argument against international sanctions is that it would immediately stop regulating the stream of refugees that departs for Europe from Libyan shores. Officially, European politicians laugh at this threat. But their faces reveal the backlash they anticipate from voters if more African immigrants should enter their continent.
Realism – but what’s the gain?
A few weeks ago, when the outcome of the revolution in Egypt was still uncertain, European pundits criticized the US for its hesitancy with their usual dose of self-righteousness. America put national interest above the legitimate struggle for democracy in the Middle East, many papers proclaimed. Obama had supposedly turned out to be a callous geopolitical realist who merely struck the pretty pose of an idealist.
Maybe that is true. The pundits’ accusation are not entirely without merit: Obama should have taken a tougher stance on Mubarak earlier on. It would have been the right thing to do – and, considering the ultimate outcome, it would have been a smart political choice, too.
Yet I ultimately prefer the undisguised realism of the American foreign policy establishment to the secret hypocrisy of their European counterparts. At least, in the US, the interests that dominate foreign policy aim at safeguarding long-term strategic and geopolitical advantages. America has learned a lesson: It might never be legitimate to sacrifice morality for self-interest. But if you have to act immorally, at least make sure that the self-interest at stake is truly worth your while.
In Europe, by contrast, comparatively trivial concerns are enough to suffocate appeals to human rights and democratic ideals. A few million Euros in revenue for arms manufacturers? An immigrant population that grows a little less quickly? Be our guest! We will gladly keep our mouths shut! After all, we have, in any case long ago given up the hope – or should I say: the fear – that the world might be listening to us.