Colonel Qaddafi is using tank columns and jet aircraft to resolve the argument of who Libya belongs to — its people or its ruler? We do not exactly know who the people opposing him are. Are they democrats, are they Islamists, or are they, as sometimes happens, more of the same? Whoever they are, they are showing a considerable amount of courage fighting tanks and jets with Kalashnikovs.
Though many of Qaddafi’s weapons are obsolete, Cold War–era junk, some of the equipment is of a more recent vintage. Since the lifting of the embargo in 2004, EU member countries have collectively exported close to a billion euros worth of armaments to the country. In February 2010, Russia and Libya signed a new arms deal worth billions, in which Qaddafi was granted deliveries of modern Russian T-90 main battle tanks, military aircraft, and artillery. The wringing of hands has just started.
While a coordinated response to the brutality of the Qaddafi regime is rather slow in coming (except for the clearly insufficient Security Council sanctions), some people have offered an immediate and spirited defense for the past Western policies: The world is not inhabited only by honorable democrats. If we are overly scrupulous and don’t do business with some of the shadier characters around the world, we will only hurt our own economies and deprive our own citizens of jobs. We are naive if we think that by depriving dictators of custom we will force them to make amends. Other countries will be more than happy to fill in the void and take over the markets we are vacating. By shunning contacts and communication with the tyrants, we lose the chance to engage, influence, and encourage their worthier citizens, among them bankers, businessmen, and students. By directly interfering in the situation, we would risk repeating the neocolonial mistakes of Vietnam and Iraq and provoking an anti-Western backlash. The world is not a perfect place and politics is the art of the possible.
All true, no doubt. So why do I feel I have heard all this before?
In 1989, Czechoslovakia emerged from the Communist period as one of the seven largest arms exporters in the world. And one of its largest customers happened to be Libya, which had been buying everything from firearms, armored carriers, and training jets down to explosives. In May 1990, President Havel revealed that Communist Czechoslovakia had supplied Libya with several tons of the plastic explosive Semtex, some of which Libya re-exported to groups like the IRA and militant Palestinian factions, and some of which was apparently used for one of the worst terrorist outrages in history: the bombing of the Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988. Havel announced that the exports were to be discontinued with immediate effect and apologized for the role Czechoslovak products played in murders of innocent people. Several months later he declared that Czechoslovakia would no longer export arms to undemocratic and violent regimes.
A domestic storm ensued. Havel was accused of naivety at best and of sabotaging the national economy at worst. In Slovakia, which had been the seat of most of the heavy industry plants producing armored carriers, heavy artillery and firearms for the Warsaw Pact and other armies, the issue helped fuel nationalistic passions that finally led to the dissolution of the country at the end of 1992. The argument that there was not much business to be done in selling armored carriers during the 1990s failed to convince the opponents. And true, eventually some of the traditional markets for Czechoslovak armaments, including Libya, had been taken over by other countries. From the economic point of view, the policy turnaround looked like a net loss.
That, however, is only a part of the story. The other part is somewhat more positive. By shedding the burden of the past and dissociating herself of its murkier customers, the country made a clear statement of where it stood, where it was going and what its policies were likely to be. This in turn brought it stability, investments, new markets, and eventually even a partial recovery of the armaments industry, this time under a firm set of rules governing exports and with its manufacturing standards in line with NATO’s. Few would deny that the overall story of the Czech economy over the last twenty years has been a huge success.
So what is the moral? It is probably impossible to construe a cost-benefit analysis that would give an unequivocal answer to the question of whether Havel’s gesture was an ill-considered act of idealistic morality with negative costs to the economy or a visionary decision to exchange limited, short-term costs for larger benefits in the future.
The moral is that it is the wrong question. There is no business like arms business. It leads to large numbers of people, all too often innocent people, being killed. As such, it should not be, cannot be subject to the same considerations as dealing in oil or pharmaceuticals. One of the core principles of our civilization is that the value of human life does not lend itself to a cost-benefit analysis. No amount of moral relativism and no amount of geopolitical realism can atone for the blood spilled.