- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
All eyes have been riveted on the endgame in Libya, and I’m as guilty as anyone in that regard. Qaddafi was hard to ignore because his behavior was often peculiar and because he caused a lot of trouble over 40 years of rule. A violent uprising in which NATO has backed one side is bound to command a lot of attention too, and it’s only natural for us to spend time trying to figure out what implications, if any, this will have for the broader process of political change that is taking place in the Arab world. Add it all up, and it’s hardly a surprise that events in Tripoli have dominated the headlines and taken up a lot of megabytes and pixels here at FP.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to remind everybody that Libya is not in fact a very important country. It has a very small population (less than 6.5 million, which means that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg governs more people than Qaddafi ever did). Libya does have a lot of oil, but it’s not a market-setting swing producer like Saudi Arabia or a major natural gas supplier like Russia. Libya has little industrial capacity or scientific/technological expertise, its military capabilities were always third-rate, and even its nuclear research programs never came anywhere near producing an actual weapon. And Qaddafi’s incomprehensible ideology won few, if any converts, apart from those who had little choice but to pretend to embrace it.
Instead, Libya under Qaddafi was mostly significant as a sometime sponsor of terrorism and for Brother Muammar’s own bizarre behavior. He was a troublemaker, to be sure, but fortunately he lacked the capability to cause as much trouble as he might have liked.
It is heartwarming to see the rebels triumph, and let’s by all means hope that they defy expectations and manage to build a new and reliably democratic Libyan state. But in the larger scheme of the world this revolt is a pretty minor event. In the long term, more good would probably come from 1) getting the United States and Eurozone economies restarted (which would have lots of positive secondary effects), 2) preventing an intense security competition between the United States and China, 3) finding some way to reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions, 4) settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 5) ensuring that democracy takes firm root in Egypt, or 6) preventing more bloodbaths in South Asia (just to name a few).
I don’t mean to be a killjoy here, and nothing I’ve just said diminishes the achievement of the courageous Libyans who have fought to regain control over their own country and their own lives. But their success won’t help us make progress on a lot of other big issues in world politics, and we ought to keep that in mind too.