The last time the West decided to punish an Arab dictator from 30,000 feet, we ended up with a failed state in North Africa, and created a playground for al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist networks on the Mediterranean.  If that sounds familiar, that just means readers have paid attention to Libya as well as Syria, and so has the UK newspaper Independent.  Patrick Cockburn reports that the collapse in Libya is worse than anyone wants to admit, with an oil industry that has utterly stalled and a prime minister threatening to bomb his own ports:

Libya has almost entirely stopped producing oil as the government loses control of much of the country to militia fighters.

Mutinying security men have taken over oil ports on the Mediterranean and are seeking to sell crude oil on the black market. Ali Zeidan, Libya’s Prime Minister, has threatened to “bomb from the air and the sea” any oil tanker trying to pick up the illicit oil from the oil terminal guards, who are mostly former rebels who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi and have been on strike over low pay and alleged government corruption since July.

As world attention focused on the coup in Egypt and the poison gas attack in Syria over the past two months, Libya has plunged unnoticed into its worst political and economic crisis since the defeat of Gaddafi two years ago. Government authority is disintegrating in all parts of the country putting in doubt claims by American, British and French politicians that Nato’s military action in Libya in 2011 was an outstanding example of a successful foreign military intervention which should be repeated in Syria.

In an escalating crisis little regarded hitherto outside the oil markets, output of Libya’s prized high-quality crude oil has plunged from 1.4 million barrels a day earlier this year to just 160,000 barrels a day now. Despite threats to use military force to retake the oil ports, the government in Tripoli has been unable to move effectively against striking guards and mutinous military units that are linked to secessionist forces in the east of the country.

Libyans are increasingly at the mercy of militias which act outside the law. Popular protests against militiamen have been met with gunfire; 31 demonstrators were shot dead and many others wounded as they protested outside the barracks of “the Libyan Shield Brigade” in the eastern capital Benghazi in June.

The oil issue is the biggest concern, and not because of the falling production. If militias seize the terminals, they could use the oil to fund their efforts directly.  Many of those militias are either affiliated or allied with al-Qaeda, and that income would provide a huge boost to their asymmetrical operations.  This is precisely why action against Qaddafi was so dangerous, and we aren’t far from that scenario now.

Cockburn also notes that the humanitarian disaster is at least as bad as it was before the NATO intervention — but the interventionists seem very disinterested in it now:

Though the Nato intervention against Gaddafi was justified as a humanitarian response to the threat that Gaddafi’s tanks would slaughter dissidents in Benghazi, the international community has ignored the escalating violence. The foreign media, which once filled the hotels of Benghazi and Tripoli, have likewise paid little attention to the near collapse of the central government.

To call this a cautionary tale for Syria is to engage in artful understatement.  This outcome should send up red flags, warning flares, and grab the focus of people around the world.  Our last intervention turned Libya from a brutal dictatorship that at least cooperated with the West on some counter-terrorist efforts into a failed state where terrorists operate openly and oil revenue is up for grabs.  That outcome in Syria would be an utter disaster for the Middle East, and eventually for Turkey and Europe.