As NATO’s military efforts to keep Moammar Gaddafi in a box continue to fall short, at least the international sanctions are having a significant effect on the civil war in Libya. Unfortunately, as the Washington Post reports, it’s not the effect the West intended. Gaddafi has restructured his regime to withstand the effects of international sanctions, but the economy in rebel-held areas has struggled to stay afloat:
Forced on the defensive on the battlefield, Libya’s rebels are also struggling in the economic war of attrition with Moammar Gaddafi, despite the backing of the West.
Global efforts to isolate Gaddafi and cut off his economic lifeline have put significant pressure on his government. But President Obama and other NATO leaders may find that sanctions do not bring Gaddafi to his knees as quickly as they would hope, if at all.
The panic that gripped the Libyan economy at the height of the crisis has substantially abated, and the government has implemented a series of measures to cope with the sanctions and the loss of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers.
The economic situation appears more chaotic in the rebel-held east, with the collapse of much of the public sector and the shuttering of oil production.
We saw something similar during the twelve-year standoff in Iraq. Massive economic sanctions on the Saddam Hussein regime brought reports of 5000 starvation deaths a month, one of the reasons the UN started the Oil for Food Programme. The international community was supposed to ensure that the sale of Iraqi oil went to buy food and humanitarian supplies for the people; instead, corruption in nations such as France, Russia, and others put billions of dollars into the pockets of Hussein himself.
Sanctions are effective only in the context of waging war by economic means against another government. Sanctions as humanitarian intervention makes as much sense as air raids for humanitarian intervention. Iran is a good example of this. The sanctions there are not offered in humanitarian rationalizations, but for the stark reality of the mullahcracy’s march towards nuclear weapons. We hope that this inspires the Iranian people to rid themselves of their oppressors (although we seem awfully disinterested when they try), but the obvious goal is much more straightforward and honest.
As long as the rogue government targeted by sanctions stays in power, the impact of sanctions will get spread to those victims whom the regime chooses. At some point, the idea is that the pain will force the people to overthrow their despots, and that’s not an illegitimate goal, but it necessarily means that the world has to inflict even more misery on a nation in order to force that kind of change. In the case of Libya, the sanctions are actually working against regime change to a certain degree by handcuffing the rebels and demoralizing the population under their control. The war itself has done enough damage in these areas, and the sanctions are making it worse.
If the West truly wanted to intervene, then it should have done so decisively with a plan that actually addressed the stated objectives of the coalition. Either that, or NATO should have stayed out of the conflict entirely — as they have done in Sudan, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria.