Libya is Europe’s Job

Gaddafi looks to shake Rompuy

As conditions continue to deteriorate in Libya and the prospect of a bloody, protracted internecine conflict looms greater everyday, the question of outside assistance to end the conflict and to end the rule of Muammar Qadhafi increasingly enters the conversation. Inevitably, the possibility of the United States taking a lead role in whatever response the international community conjures is among the potential solutions. Thrusting the United States into a leadership role would be a mistake. Doing something about the unfolding tragedy in Libya is Europe’s job. The United States may be a part of the effort, but in a supportive, not a lead role.

Why should Europe lead? In mulling the situation from afar, I can think of four very obvious answers, although there may well be more: Europe is closer, it has historic ties to Libya, the beneficiaries of Libyan oil are mostly European, and any refugees who cannot be absorbed by Egypt or Tunisia are going to head for Europe. Let’s examine each of these for a moment.


Sicily and the toe of the the Italian boot are only several hundred miles from Libya. This means, for instance, that if the international community (in this case, effectively NATO) decides to do something militarily about Libya, Italy, and Spain are logical launching points, especially for air strikes that are likely the first (and possibly only) form that direct intervention will take: non-American NATO forces can do that job much better than U.S. carrier-based aircraft. So let them!

Proximity is more than geography. Libya is economically tied to Europe much more closely than it is to the United States. Italy receives more Libyan exports than any other country (approximately 38 percent of Libyan exports are to Italy), and Libya’s other top five trading partners are, according to CIA Factbook figures, Germany, France, Spain, and Switzerland; the United States finishes a distant sixth in receiving exports from Libya. The pattern of Libyan imports is similar, headed by Italy and Germany, in that order. The U.S. has no personal economic stake in Libya.

Historic Ties

Second Libya and Europe share history not shared with the United States. Other than a line from the Marine Corps hymn (“to the shores of Tripoli”) associated with the Barbary pirates during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, all lines tie Libya to Europe. Notably, Italy occupied the country from 1912 until World War II, and France and Great Britain shared mandatory responsibility after WW II. Presumably these experiences give Europeans a sense of understanding of Libya that we lack (although ignorance has rarely stopped us from bumbling into situations aboyut which we have no clue, e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan).

Interests: Oil

Third, about all that is important about Libya is its oil, and the United States doesn’t get hardly any of it. Petroleum IS the Libyan economy: 95 percent of its export income comes from oil, as does 25 percent of its GDP and 80 percent of government revenues, according to 2009 estimates from the CIA. As import/export figures indicate, the oil goes to Europe; this suggests who should be primarily worried about it.

Refugee Problem

Fourth, there is the question of refugees. The flow has already begun, but thus far it is mostly foreign (especially Egyptian) petroleum industry workers fleeing the war. If the conflict drags on and/or if there are increasing recriminations, that flow will almost certainly increase and include Libyans, and there is no indication that either neighboring Egypt or Tunisia can or will absorb them. If not, where will they go? You guessed it: Europe, and especially Italy, which is no longer a small craft voyage away from north Africa than, say, south Florida is from Haiti. These refugees cannot get to the United States unless we invite and transport them, which we almost certainly will not do. The only way to avoid the flood is for a reasonably quick resolution that includes the overthrow of Qadhafi. It is not hard to determine whose interests are particularly served by a quick resolution.

Why United States Should Partner, Not Lead

There are also good reasons for the United States NOT to take the lead. The most obvious is overcommitment. The United States is, after all, already mired in two Middle Eastern wars that are sapping American military and economic resources. Do we need a third? 

Granted, intervention meets the recent criteria for such involvement: instability in a country where we lack either knowledge or understanding, but the negatives are overwhelming. And the United States does not have a sufficient dog in this hunt to even imagine sticking our military nose in the middle of this one. Europeans arguably do.

There is yet another reason for us to stay in the background that is seldom mentioned, probably because it is a bit embarrassing. In recent days, as the Libyan armed forces have stepped up attacks on civilians, there have been increasing calls to capture and try Qadhafi as a war criminal, presumably before the International Criminal Court (ICC or War Crimes Court). Great idea, and almost certainly justified, but if the international community is going to do so, it is best to have the Americans in the background, not up front.

Why? Simply because the United States not only is not a member of the ICC, but was (particularly under the Bush administration) positively opposed to acceptance of the jurisdiction against Americans (on the grounds that the U.S. would lose sovereign control of its own soldiers). How can the United States be the champion of bringing Qadhafi to justice before a tribunal whose jurisdiction we refuse to accept without appearing hopelessly hypocritical? The question is not rhetorical: the reason George W. Bush cancelled his plans to go to Switzerland earlier in the year was because he might well have been arrested on war crimes charges and potentially been brought before the ICC for actions taken by the United States in Iraq and at Guantanamo. The Europeans do not have the same problem.

The case for European, not American, leadership in dealing with Libya is, in my judgment, overwhelming. That does not mean that European NATO will step up to the plate and accept that responsibility, simply that they should. If they do not (as they well may not), Libyan blood will be much more on their hands than ours.

Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. This essay first appeared at his blog What After Iraq?. Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

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