Why Libya?

March 24th, 2011
in Op Ed

libya airstrike   by Elliott Morss

Most Americans believe in democracy; it is in their DNA. And when you point to its defects, they smile and quote Churchill: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

The belief in democracy is reflected in the rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy. But the reality of U.S. foreign policy is far different. And since most Americans are uninformed and uninterested in U.S. foreign policy (unless their children were drafted), they let their leaders do what they want.

Follow up:


The Cold War

To combat the USSR "evil empire", the U.S. befriended many dictators: Greece (Papadopoulos), Spain (Franco), Iran (Pahlavi - The Shah), Nicaragua (Somoza), Paraguay (Stroessner) Haiti (the Duvaliers), Chile (Pinochet), Cambodia (Pol Pot), Liberia (Tubman), Zimbabwe (Mugabe), The Philippines (Marcos), Dominican Republic (Trujillo), Panama (Noriega), and Zaire (Mobutu).

After the Cold War, US support for military dictators continued and even justified by the U.S. government. Charles Krauthammer, writing in an article on "Dictatorships - World War II and the Cold War" in the Encylopedia of the New American Nation in 2002, said:


 "...the Department of State noted that 'our experience with the more highly developed Latin American states indicates that authoritarianism is required to lead backward societies through their socioeconomic revolutions.' Moreover, if the 'breakthrough occurs under noncommunist authoritarianism, trends toward democratic values emerge with the development of a literate middle class.' Right-wing dictators would 'remain the norm ... for a long period. The trend toward military authoritarianism will accelerate as developmental problems become more acute and the facades of democracy left by the colonial powers prove inadequate to immediate tasks.'"


From a Time magazine article on "Dictatorships and Double Standards" in September of the same year, Krauthammer commented:

 "We cannot destabilize every regime at once and hope by some miracle to escape chaos. The idea that we betray our principles if we do not demand universal democracy--immediately and everywhere--is as ironic as it is Utopian. America is daily attacked for cowboy interventionism and arrogant unilateralism--then simultaneously attacked for not acting unilaterally to cleanse the planet of all tyranny."


The U.S. appears to have launched a crusade for democracy. If George W. Bush is to be believed, that is why it invaded Iraq. After bin Laden could not be found in Afghanistan, regime change for democracy became the objective, at least for a while. And now, Libya.


US Military Interventions: the Problem


Since WWII, the Gulf War is the one war that can be deemed a success. Why was that a success? Because there was a clearly defined objective with an achievable exit strategy: get Iraq out of Kuwait and nothing more. Consider the Korean and Vietnam Wars: What was the objective and exit strategy? Take over the countries with China on the northern border of each? So the U.S. left, and The Cold War ended when the USSR economic system collapsed.

And now, how about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya? Was any thought given to an implementable exit strategy? My own view on Iraq and Afghanistan is that the U.S. will accomplish absolutely nothing useful by staying longer. In Libya, we have had the TV show of American planes lighting up the skies over Tripoli. Notice how well-armed the opposition fighters are. This is not a simple situation. Maybe a civil war? Expect another protracted ground war shortly.

Democracy - Why Libya?

The Economist Intelligence Unit does democracy ratings. It categorizes countries into full democracies (26), flawed democracies (53), hybrid regimes (33), and authoritarian regimes (55). Of the 167 countries listed, Libya ranks 158. The following table lists the countries below Libya.


libya democracy ratings



I repeat: why Libya? It is well documented that most of the 9/11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia just provided military support (troops and munitions) to help its neighbor Bahrain (ranked 122 on the democracy index) forcibly put down an uprising. Who rules in Bahrain? The Emir of Bahrain is a dictator, keeping a minority group (Sunnis) in control over a Shiite majority (Iraq redux).

Why not invade Saudi Arabia and bring the Saudi people democracy? No. The U.S. cannot try to bring democracy to Saudi Arabia: too much oil.

Ivory Coast

The real tragedy is that developments in the Ivory Coast have been ignored.  See GEI News here, here, here and here.  Under UN sanctions, a presidential election was held. The Electoral Commission declared that Ouattara beat the incumbent Gbagbo by a margin of 54% to 46%. Gbagbo refused to step down, sealed the borders, and a war has started. It would be easy and appropriate for the UN to remove Gbagbo from power and install Ouattara as the duly-elected new president. Libya is a country of only 7 million people. The Ivory Coast has 21 million.

The Enormous US Government Deficit

U.S. politicians are arguing about what programs to cut to reduce the US government deficit. But somehow, questions of cost do not arise when the president launches the country into a new war.

The Congressional Budget Office breaks down 2011 federal expenditures into Mandatory ($2.108 trillion) and Discretionary ($1.375 trillion). Discretionary is divided further into Military ($561 billion) and Non-Defense ($533 billion).

The US government is spending more on defense than on education, non-mandatory health, transport, etc. combined. Tomahawk missiles light up the sky and are impressive on TV. Each one costs something between $600,000 and $1,000,000.


And here are these comments from Robert Borosage in his article on "Imperial Blues" in the Huffington Post December 2, 2009:


"The country finds itself constantly at war. New presidents inherit the wars of their predecessors. They are faced not with deciding to go to war, but whether to accept defeat in one already in progress. And slowly, the great power declines from the inside out. The wars are costly, running up national debts. Vital investments are put off. Schools decline. Sewers leak. For a long time, circuses distract from the spreading ruin. Other societies become productive centers, capturing the new industries. Some begin providing better education for their citizens, better support for their citizens. Their taxes, not drained by the cost of wars past and present, can be devoted to what we used to call 'domestic improvements.’


"South Waziristan, Yemen, Somalia, Kosovo, the Taiwan straits, the North Korean border, the seven seas - we can do this. But the result is that we are continually at war. And the wars cost - in money, in lives, in attention. And inevitably, domestic priorities, as well as emerging security threats that have no military answers, get ignored. A rich country, Adam Smith wrote, has a lot of ruin in it. We seem intent on testing the limits of that proposition."

Thus we are still left with the question:  Why Libya?


elliott morss Elliott Morss has a broad background in international finance and economics.  He holds a Ph.D. in Political Economy from The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at the University of Michigan, Harvard, Boston University, Brandeis and the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires.  During his career he worked in the Fiscal Affairs Department at the IMF with assignments in more than 45 countries.  In addition, Elliott was a principle in a firm that became the largest contractor to USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and co-founded (and was president) of the Asia-Pacific Group with investments in Cambodia, China and Myanmar.  He has co-authored seven books and published more than 50 professional journal articles.  Elliott writes at his blog Morss Global Finance.


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1 comment

  1. sunil chandra (Member) Email says :


    Very thought provoking. Many of us Indians have always wondered ( even when India was not an important country in US eyes)about this strange American resolve to get into wars thousands of miles away from home and then justify its intervention by producing strange conflicting logic. We had always felt quite confused(and hurt) by the US preference for our neighbour Pakistan's dictatorial regimes over our own throbbing democracy. But then, slowly, we learned to live with it . And therefore, now, Libya does not surprise us at all.

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