So why not intervene in Bahrain, Yemen, even Saudi Arabia, the BBC among others asks? “Take it case by case,” is the holding reply. And then that little phrase “oil rich states” crops up. Is default cynicism the right reaction to the attacks on Libya or is it just impotent chatter? Is there no middle way between doing nothing in Libya and launching a crusade ( good word!) against all Moslem despots? If the latter, we could stoically and ruinously accept oil rationing I suppose, like during a few days of the Suez crisis in 1956, or suffer another round of huge price shocks as in the 1970s on the back of the Yom Kippur war (which incidentally showed how little the oil producers were western puppets).
Very often the critics of western “hypocrisy” are the same are those now reasonably demanding a cut in fuel duty. They may have a point, but once they’ve put it and when the cut or freeze is made, what do we do with the other part of the argument? Follow the course over Libya. A couple of weeks ago the firmly pro-business Economist put the case for cosying up to Gadaffi in the past.
The ostracism of the 1990s failed to shift Mr Qaddafi from power, despite its moral clarity. But it did help persuade him that he stood to gain from engaging with the world. That opened the door to some shabby deals. The release of one of Mr Qaddafi’s terrorists from a British jail, the sale of weapons to Libya and the elevation of a dictator into a statesman at the G8 all looked unwise at the time. Today they look despicable.
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.
Late February seems such a long time ago now. Without Libyan oil, the markets will go volatile for a while but without going so far as to plunge the world into a new oil crisis. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil states are a different kettle of fish. Their own internal situation and the unannounced Saudi intervention in Bahrain is causing piercing western headaches.
The Saudis tend to oblige when the West calls for them to turn on the taps a bit further to stabilise the world price, in exchange for continuing support for the regime, against Iran and the growing Iranian- supported internal Shia opposition. But with phenomenal economic growth continuing in China and India, they have other burgeoning markets in the East and the old nexus may be loosening.
This morning, as between the West and the Arabian regimes, the question “Who needs whom the most?” may have become an even more difficult call.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London