Blood and oil

Published on The Economist, Feb 24, 2011.

LESS than two years ago, at the G8 summit in L’Aquila in Italy, prime ministers and presidents sat down to talk about world trade and food security with Muammar Qaddafi. Today Libya’s tyrant is paying mercenaries to shoot his people in the streets like “rats” and “cockroaches” … //

… And yet Mr Qaddafi also made concessions that were worth something to the West, to the region and to Libyans themselves. The greatest of these was to give up his nuclear programme and help to blow the lid on the nuclear black market centred on Pakistan. Libya also stopped sponsoring terrorism in the West, though it continued to sow mayhem in Africa. And, hard as it is to remember just now, Libya’s people were less oppressed after their country rejoined the world. 

Business should not be expected to live up to higher standards than government. But it too has to balance the practical with the moral—and be aware that the balance changes. Any deal based on an outright lie will come back to haunt you. The greed which this week caught up with those who accepted the Qaddafis as patrons of human rights will one day shame the lawyers, bankers and PR men vouching for the character of Russia’s bloodstained oligarchs. In contrast, the oil firms who did business in Libya could justifiably claim they helped Western consumers and Libya’s people—and they never pretended Mr Qaddafi was a fine upstanding fellow (see article).

but sometimes cynicism can be deeply naive:

This is not an argument for callousness. The lesson from the Arab awakening is an uplifting one. Hard-headed students of realpolitik like to think that only they see the world as it truly is, and that those who pursue human rights and democracy have their heads in the clouds. In their world, the Middle East was not ready for democracy, Arabs not interested in human rights, and the strongmen the only bulwark between the region and Islamic revolution. Yet after the wave of secular uprisings, it is the cynics who seem out of touch, and the idealists have turned out to be the realists.

Just occasionally, the power of ordinary people can overturn the certainties of the experts. That is why countries dealing with dictators should never confuse engagement with endorsement and why the West should press for human rights and democracy—even when it is inconvenient, as it is with China and Russia. Just ask those who have summoned up the courage to risk death for a cause on the streets of Tripoli. (full text).


Endgame in Tripoli, Feb 24, 2011;

Mapping the Arab World, Feb 17, 2011.

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