Despite what you may be hearing from critics of March 17's U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone and "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from harm, Libya is not peripheral to the world system. It is at its very core. Libya possesses 1,800 kilometers of Mediterranean coastline. The country produces 2 percent of the world's oil, with 85 percent of exports going to Europe. Libyan nationals have been prominent jihadists in Iraq. Since the beginning of the Great Recession and the slump in global demand in 2008, Libya has allocated $200 billion toward new infrastructure spending.
And yet Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, curiously described U.S. interests in Libya as "less than vital" in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week. He cautioned that even the modest step of participating in a multilateral no-fly zone would be incommensurate with America's limited strategic interests. Harvard University professor Stephen Walt made a similar point. "For starters," Walt argued, "let's acknowledge that the United States has no vital strategic interests at stake in the outcome of the Libyan struggle."
But a brief review of Libya's history demonstrates that Britain, France, Italy, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States have long had a great deal at stake in Libya, even before oil was discovered in 1959. Today, it is a paramount American interest that Libya not return to being a rogue state or descend into civil war. If Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi reasserts control over the east or even if he fails and the country is cleaved in two, U.S. interests in the region would suffer a major setback.
What makes Libya so important? Any real estate agent could tell you: location, location, location. Control of the country has always been a remarkably effective way to project power into Egypt, the Mediterranean, and beyond. Similarly, denying a hostile power (be it the Soviet Union, Muammar al-Qaddafi, or terrorists) the ability to destabilize surrounding countries from Libyan territory has been a consistent thread in U.S. policy since the end of World War II.
Seventy years ago, the Axis powers used Libya to launch daring tank offensives aimed at the Suez Canal. With the British victory at El Alamein in late 1942 and the ensuing conquest of northern Libya, British strategic planners decided that Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) was the only part of conquered Italian colonial territory that was essential for Britain's strategic position in the Middle East. In 1945, the Soviet Union's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, pushed for a Soviet trusteeship over Tripolitania (northwest Libya).
The Soviet bid backfired. It forced American statesmen to put aside their distaste for extending the British Empire as they realized that denying the Soviets a naval base on the Mediterranean was a core U.S. interest. France and Italy, as pretenders to world-power status and interested parties in North Africa, also wanted to have their spheres of influence in Libya. Because the "Libya question" was so rancorously contested by all parties, it was deemed unsolvable by traditional great-power diplomacy. In 1948, it was passed onto the nascent United Nations.
By the late 1940s, U.S. President Harry Truman and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin concluded that Libyan airfields were essential for Cold War defense. After Libyan independence in 1951, U.S. and British payments for basing rights formed the single-largest element of Libyan GDP until oil exports began in 1961. Even with the decline in importance of the fighter-bomber as a nuclear delivery vehicle, and thus the need for the bases, Libya's strategic importance did not wane. Accordingly, U.S. and British diplomats attempted to court Colonel Qaddafi's favor when he came to power in 1969. They acquiesced to his demand to abandon their air bases, supposing that eager compliance would encourage Libya's new leadership from drifting into the anti-Western camp. They were wrong.
As Libya intensified its support for militant revolutionary causes -- ranging from the Irish Republican Army to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to various unsavory terrorist groups -- throughout the 1970s, Western policymakers avoided reprisals against Libyan interests. Amazingly, from 1972 to 1977, U.S. imports of Libyan oil increased tenfold, and U.S. exports to Libya trebled. Qaddafi gratefully used the influx of dollars to undermine American interests in Africa and the Middle East.
The 1970s U.S. policy of bartering with a sworn enemy was abandoned under President Ronald Reagan. Convinced that Libya's anti-Western orientation and geostrategic position made regime change a core U.S. interest, Reagan famously declared Qaddafi to be the "mad dog of the Middle East." However, unilateral U.S. sanctions in 1982 and then airstrikes in 1986 -- as a response to the Berlin disco bombing -- failed to produce the desired results. By the 1990s, it was clear that the United States could not unseat Qaddafi by itself. Libya's threat to a stable post-Cold War world order was deemed significant enough that U.S. policymakers devised a way to enlist Europe in shutting Libya out of the international system. On flimsy evidence, Libya was found guilty of the devastating 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Europe was finally on board for comprehensive U.N. sanctions of Libya, which endured from 1992 to 1999.
In 1999, feeling the pinch caused by his decaying oil infrastructure and declining revenues, Qaddafi turned over the two suspected Lockerbie bombers for trial in the Netherlands (only one, Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi, was later convicted). This action caused U.N. sanctions to be suspended. As more countries began trading with Libya, the U.S. policy dating back to Reagan of actively containing Qaddafi and hoping for his ouster was no longer feasible.
In the new millennium, U.S. and British negotiators intensified their covert dealings with Libyan diplomats, and in 2003, Qaddafi made his first payment of compensation to the Lockerbie victims' families. At the same time, the colonel declared his desire to voluntarily give up his weapons of mass destruction program. The rogue was seemingly rehabilitated and multilateral action vindicated. Libya was tentatively permitted to rejoin the world community.