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Go home, Noam.

April 4, 2011
My writings on this site have clearly been critical of Libyan intervention. However, as I’ve pointed out before, there are still misguided reasons to oppose or criticize misguided policies. In the case of Libya, there is no explanation more ridiculous than the criticism of oil guiding the war. The expected critics, such as Noam Chomsky, eagerly take the bait. After meandering through some generally valid criticism that Libya’s oil wealth provided many Westerners with a strong incentive to embrace the Gaddafi regime, and the obligatory riffing on Iraq, Chomsky decides to apply the same logic to Libya:

Libya is a different case, an oil-rich state run by a brutal dictator, who, however, is unreliable: A dependable client would be far preferable. When nonviolent protests erupted, Gadhafi moved quickly to crush them.

On March 22, as Gadhafi’s forces were converging on the rebel capital of Benghazi, top Obama Middle East adviser Dennis Ross warned that if there is a massacre, “everyone would blame us for it,” an unacceptable consequence.

And the West certainly didn’t want Gadhafi to enhance his power and independence by crushing the rebellion. The U.S. joined in the U.N. Security Council authorization of a “no-fly zone,” to be implemented by France, the U.K. and the U.S.

The intervention prevented a likely massacre but was interpreted by the coalition as authorizing direct support for the rebels. A cease-fire was imposed on Gadhafi’s forces, but the rebels were helped to advance to the West. In short order they conquered the major sources of Libya’s oil production, at least temporarily.

It is commonly argued that oil cannot be a motive for the intervention because the West had access to the prize under Gadhafi. True but irrelevant. The same could be said about Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or Iran and Cuba today.

What the West seeks is what Bush announced: control, or at least dependable clients, and in the case of Libya, access to vast unexplored areas expected to be rich in oil. U.S and British internal documents stress that the “virus of nationalism” is the greatest fear, since it might breed disobedience.

A huge portion of the motivation to seek rapprochement with Gaddafi in the first place was because of the country’s oil reserves, which Chomsky acknowledges at the very beginning of this article. Yet somehow revolts in Libya totally invalidated this logic, because it made Gaddafi no longer a dependable client, since when he crushed the rebellion, he would be too “independent.” Except Gaddafi was already quite independent when we began the rapprochement in the first place,  but let’s continue to untangle the logic here.
Another enormous problem is his total dismissal of the motive of humanitarian intervention. France and Britain might have a stake in Libyan oil, but the US, by and large, does not. Nor is the US likely to control Libyan oil, since it will be competing with European firms – but that’s still the West, which Chomsky assumes to be an essentially monolithic group.
Except the West is not a monolithic group, and the coalition members all clearly had very different reasons for intervening. Consider that it was initially France and the United Kingdom pushing for intervention, with the US reluctant, and the Italians preferring Gaddafi. The US did not decide to support the intervention until Obama’s foreign policy intellectuals – notably Anne-Marie Slaughter and Samantha Power, inter alia – pushed for it. Far from being craven practitioners of oil imperialism, it was leading scholars of humanitarian intervention and cooperative security which decided to intervene. The State Department and the humanitarian interventionists have been pushing for the acceleration of support in the United States, not the Defense Department or the intelligence community.
To group France, Libya, and the United Kingdom in as “colonial powers” is ridiculous. France and Italy had opposed positions at the outset of military operations. France had recognized the Libyan national council as the legitimate government, and was pushing for a vigorous military campaign, if necessary under its own leadership, to help the rebels and foment regime change. Note that Italy has by far the largest stake in Libyan oil.
When the intervention began outside of NATO, but with UNSC approval, Italy pushed for the intervention to become a NATO operation. Had the Italians suddenly become hawks? No, they were making a wise play to try and increase their leverage over the intervention, since their air bases were critical and Italy would carry more influence through NATO. Now, they have switched sides, because the choices of the other powers, more militarily involved, such as France, has made the Italian’s initial policy preferences impossible. Italy has since joined France and Qatar in recognizing the Libyan rebel council. Is it because the rebels captured the oil fields? Probably not, because their gains are tenuous. More likely, Italy’s decision that the rebels were the “dependable partner” had more to do with the policy preferences of the rest of the coalition, which is increasingly working on a diplomatic track to implement regime change.
Chomsky also fails to mention that the country exporting oil from Libya is Qatar, and this deal was done not by Western machinations, but by the rebels so they could purchase more support. This was a symptom, not the intended outcome, of the intervention. Essentially, once you take away the monolithic description of the “West,” and recognize that the countries most invested in Libyan oil opposed intervention, while a country which already has plenty of oil is the ones mediating its export from Libya, it becomes much less obvious that oil explains the decision to intervene in Libya as well as it explains the normalization of relations in the first place (and that too was a more complex story involving terrorism and unconventional arms programs).
So, at the end of the day, what does oil actually explain? Why we care about these political developments as much as we do in the first place. If regime stability, regime behavior, allied credibility and allied behavior, along with international norms about humanitarian norms influence what that assessment of a regime’s dependability in actually means in terms of concrete action, and that regime dependability seems to matter whether the regime actually has a lot of oil (KSA, Bahrain, Libya) or is a minor producer (Egypt, Tunisia) because the countries are in an oil-rich region, then oil tells us very little about specific policies during the “Arab Spring.” It just tells us why we care more about the Middle East and its political developments and humanitarian crises than say, sub-Saharan Africa’s.
Which nobody needs a PhD in linguistics to figure out.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2011 8:01 pm

    No matter who ends up running Libya, Libya have to sell oil to run the economy and repair war damage.

    While oil can never be far the the thoughts of responsible world leadership when considering the Middle East, oil cannot be a principle reason because there will be the same access at world price in any case.

    • April 6, 2011 1:30 am

      Well put. In this case, I think control of the oil is far more important to the rebels than it is to the decision-making process of most of the Western countries. The West can get oil from many places, but as you say, the Libyans can really only acquire revenue through oil.

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