Monday, June 13, 2011

Libya War: I'm sure oil had nothing to do with it, nothing, nothing at all; well, maybe

It's hard not to be cynical about our current wars. And that's not entirely a bad thing. War is a cynical business. But cynicism in politics is ultimately corrosive. And a lot more frankness and a lot more serious taking responsibility on the part of Congress, the President and the Pentagon would be required to make our current foreign policy qualitatively less cynical.

It's actually a little surprising that the role of oil in US politics in the Middle East and the Mediterranean is such a touchy subject. The US is dependent on oil. And for decades we've maintained policies that policymakers and the informed public know require risky involvements in that part of the world. Steven Mufson reports on the oil context of the Libya War in Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold Washington Post 06/10/2011:

But 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. Gaddafi, who had been sanctioned for Libya’s role in the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, also looked forward to U.S. help in reviving his flagging oil production.

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.
Mufson names among the most significant players in the Libya oil market ConocoPhillips, Eni, Hess, Marathon Oil and Occidental Petroleum. Mufson's article does not provide evidence that international oil companies were champing at the bit for a Western war against the Qaddafi regime. Instead, it presents them as taking a cautious approach:

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."
But the oil factor is part of the economic and strategic realities in which decision by France, Britain and the US to enter the Libya War took place.

Glenn Greenwald discusses Mufson's article in In a pure coincidence, Gaddafi impeded U.S. oil interests before the war Salon 06/11/2011.

[T]he 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. (emphasis in original)
It seems to me that Glenn is reaching on this one, without making allowances for what we might uncharitably call the stupidity factor. The public reports on the Obama Administration's decision-making on the Libya War also suggest that the President and his advisors may have been persuaded by intelligence and military estimates predicting a quick and easy change of regime in Tripoli. Strategic calculations relating to the Arab Awakening surely played a role. And even though I disagreed with the decision to intervene militarily, I see no reason to doubt the reports that senior advisors including Samantha Power and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocated "humanitarian" intervention or to assume that such humanitarian justifications were entirely propaganda. This is one of the dysfunctional aspects of American foreign policy. Policymakers across the mainstream political spectrum are far too quick to resort to military force and the threat of force.


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