This is not a humanitarian intervention in Libya

In a pure coincidence, Gaddafi impeded U.S. oil interests before the war

By Glenn Greenwald 

When the war in Libya began, the U.S. government convinced a large number of war supporters that we were there to achieve the very limited goal of creating a no-fly zone in Benghazi to protect civilians from air attacks, while President Obama specifically vowed that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."  This no-fly zone was created in the first week, yet now, almost three months later, the war drags on without any end in sight, and NATO is no longer even hiding what has long been obvious: that its real goal is exactly the one Obama vowed would not be pursued -- regime change through the use of military force.  We're in Libya to forcibly remove Gaddafi from power and replace him with a regime that we like better, i.e., one that is more accommodating to the interests of the West.  That's not even a debatable proposition at this point.

 

What I suppose is debatable, in the most generous sense of that term, is our motive in doing this.  Why -- at a time when American political leaders feel compelled to advocate politically radioactive budget cuts to reduce the deficit and when polls show Americans solidly and increasingly opposed to the war -- would the U.S. Government continue to spend huge sums of money to fight this war?  Why is President Obama willing to endure self-evidently valid accusations -- even from his own Party -- that he's fighting an illegal war by brazenly flouting the requirements for Congressional approval?  Why would Defense Secretary Gates risk fissures by so angrily and publicly chiding NATO allies for failing to build more Freedom Bombs to devote to the war?  And why would we, to use the President's phrase, "stand idly by" while numerous other regimes -- including our close allies in Bahrain and Yemen and the one in Syria -- engage in attacks on their own people at least as heinous as those threatened by Gaddafi, yet be so devoted to targeting the Libyan leader?

Whatever the answers to those mysteries, no responsible or Serious person, by definition, would suggest that any of this  -- from today's Washington Post -- has anything to do with it:

 

The relationship between Gaddafi and the U.S. oil industry as a whole was odd. In 2004, President George W. Bush unexpectedly lifted economic sanctions on Libya in return for its renunciation of nuclear weapons and terrorism. There was a burst of optimism among American oil executives eager to return to the Libyan oil fields they had been forced to abandon two decades earlier. . . .

Yet even before armed conflict drove the U.S. companies out of Libya this year, their relations with Gaddafi had soured. The Libyan leader demanded tough contract terms. He sought big bonus payments up front. Moreover, upset that he was not getting more U.S. government respect and recognition for his earlier concessions, he pressured the oil companies to influence U.S. policies. . . .

When Gaddafi made his deal with Bush in 2004, he had hoped that returning foreign oil companies would help boost Libya’s output . . . The U.S. government also encouraged American oil companies to go back to Libya. . . .

The companies needed little encouragement. Libya has some of the biggest and most proven oil reserves -- 43.6 billion barrels -- outside Saudi Arabia, and some of the best drilling prospects. . . . Throughout this time, oil prices kept rising, whetting the appetite for greater supplies of Libya's unusually "sweet" and "light," or high-quality, crude oil.

By the time Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited in 2008, U.S. joint ventures accounted for 510,000 of Libya's 1.7 million barrels a day of production, a State Department cable said. . . .

But all was not well. By November 2007, a State Department cable noted "growing evidence of Libyan resource nationalism." It noted that in his 2006 speech marking the founding of his regime, Gaddafi said: "Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money." His son made similar remarks in 2007.

Oil companies had been forced to give their local subsidiaries Libyan names, the cable said. . . .

The entire article is worth reading, as it details how Gaddafi has progressively impeded the interests of U.S. and Western oil companies by demanding a greater share of profits and other concessions, to the point where some of those corporations were deciding that it may no longer be profitable or worthwhile to drill for oil there.  But now, in a pure coincidence, there is hope on the horizon for these Western oil companies, thanks to the war profoundly humanitarian action being waged by the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner and his nation's closest Western allies:

 

But Libya's oil production has foundered, sagging to about 1.5 million barrels a day by early this year before unrest broke out. The big oil companies, several of which had drilled dry holes, felt that Libya was not making the best exploration prospects available. One major company privately said that it was on the verge of a discovery but that unrest cut short the project.

With the country torn by fighting, the big international oil companies are treading carefully, unwilling to throw their lot behind Gaddafi or the rebel coalition.

Yet when representatives of the rebel coalition in Benghazi spoke to the U.S.-Libya Business Council in Washington four weeks ago, representatives from ConocoPhillips and other oil firms attended, according to Richard Mintz, a public relations expert at the Harbour Group, which represents the Benghazi coalition. In another meeting in Washington, Ali Tarhouni, the lead economic policymaker in Benghazi, said oil contracts would be honored, Mintz said.

"Now you can figure out who’s going to win, and the name is not Gaddafi," Saleri said. "Certain things about the mosaic are taking shape. The Western companies are positioning themselves."

"Five years from now," he added, "Libyan production is going to be higher than right now and investments are going to come in."

I have two points to make about all this:

(1) The reason -- the only reason -- we know about any of this is because WikiLeaks (and, allegedly, Bradley Manning) disclosed to the world the diplomatic cables which detail these conflicts.  Virtually the entirety of the Post article -- like most significant revelations over the last 12 months, especially in the Middle East and North Africa -- are based exclusively on WikiLeaks disclosures.  That's why we know about Gaddafi's increasingly strident demands for the "Libyanization" of his country's resource exploitation.  That's how we know about most of the things we've learned about the world's most powerful political and corporate factions over the last 12 months.  Is there anything easier to understand than why U.S. Government officials are so eager to punish WikiLeaks and deter future transparency projects of this sort?

(2) Is there anyone -- anywhere -- who actually believes that these aren't the driving considerations in why we're waging this war in Libya?  After almost three months of fighting and bombing -- when we're so far from the original justifications and commitments that they're barely a distant memory -- is there anyone who still believes that humanitarian concerns are what brought us and other Western powers to the war in Libya?  Is there anything more obvious -- as the world's oil supplies rapidly diminish -- than the fact that our prime objective is to remove Gaddafi and install a regime that is a far more reliable servant to Western oil interests, and that protecting civilians was the justifying pretext for this war, not the purpose?  If (as is quite possible) the new regime turns out to be as oppressive as Gaddafi but far more subservient to Western corporations (like, say, our good Saudi friends), does anyone think we're going to care in the slightest or (at most) do anything other than pay occasional lip service to protesting it?  Does anyone think we're going to care about The Libyan People if they're being oppressed or brutalized by a reliably pro-Western successor to Gaddafi?

In 2006, George Bush instructed us that there was a "responsible" and an "irresponsible" way for citizens to debate the Iraq War: the "responsible" way was to suggest that there may be better tactics for waging the war more effectively, while the "irresponsible" way was to outrageously insinuate that perhaps oil or Israel or deceit played a role in the invasion:

 

Yet we must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate -- and it's even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas.

The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it. They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people. And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right.

Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton hosted a meeting of top executives from a wide array of corporations -- Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Halliburton, GE, Chevron, Lockheed Martin, Citigroup, Occidental Petroleum, etc. etc. -- to plot how to exploit "economic opportunities in the new Iraq."  And one WikiLeaks "diplomatic" cable after the next reveals constant government efforts to promote the interests of Western corporations in the developing world.  Nonetheless, the very notion that the U.S. wages wars not for humanitarian or freedom-spreading purposes, but rather to exploit the resources of other nations for its own large corporations, is deeply "irresponsible" and unSerious.  As usual, the ideas stigmatized with the most potent taboos are the ones that are the most obviously true.

It's certainly possible to contend reasonably that (as was true for Iraq) removing a heinous dictator and other humanitarian outcomes will be the incidental by-product of our war in Libya even if not its purpose (although, as was also true in Iraq, one would need to see the regime that replaces Gaddafi to know if that's true).  And it's fine -- or at least candid -- to argue, as Ann Coulter often does, that "of course we should go to war for oil. . . .We need oil. That's a good reason to go to war." But to believe that humanitarianism (protection of Libya civilians) was why we went to war in Libya requires a blindness so willful and complete that it's genuinely difficult to describe.

 

UPDATE:  To clarify what I believe was already clear: the point here is not that the U.S. invaded Libya in order to steal its oil.  That's not the West's modus operandi.  The point is that what distinguishes Gaddafi and made him a war target is not the claimed humanitarian rationale (he brutalized his own people) any more than "Saddam's gassing his own people" (25 years ago when he was a close American ally) was the reason the U.S. invaded Iraq.  Instead, what distinguished Gaddafi and made him a war target was that he had become insufficiently compliant -- an unreliable and unstable servant to the West.

The U.S. does not object in the slightest when a leader oppresses or even attacks his own people.  The U.S. adores leaders who do things like that.  Its best friends in the region have long done and continue to do exactly that -- from Mubarak to the Saudis to Yemen's Saleh to the Bahrainis, not to mention the Shah of Iran and even our one-time good friend Saddam.  The very idea that the U.S. Government woke up one day and suddenly decided that it can no longer abide a leader who mistreats his own people -- and that's why we went to Libya -- is so ludicrous that it's actually painful to hear that people believe that.  It so obviously confuses pretext with cause.  If Gaddafi had continued to be as compliant as he had been in the past, does anyone really believe we would have invaded his country and spent months trying to kill him and replace him with another regime?

That's not to say that Gaddafi's "resource nationalism" is the only or even overriding motive for the war in Libya.  Wars are typically caused by the interests of multiple factions and rarely have just one motive.  As Jim Webb explained in arguing that the U.S. has no vital interest in Libya, the French and British are far more reliant on Libyan oil than the U.S. is (and this reader offers a rational dissent and alternative explanation for the war).  But the U.S. has long made clear that it will not tolerate hostile or disobedient rulers in countries where it believes it has vital interests, and that's particularly true in oil rich nations (which is one reason for the American obsession with Iran).  It's just hard to believe that any rational person would believe that the war in Libya is unrelated to the fact that Gaddafi has been increasingly obstructionist in allowing Western oil companies access to that nation's oil and that Libya is so rich in oil.

This article originally appeared on Salon.com on June 11, 2011.

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