NATO money and the Libya war

Monday, June 13, 2011

I saw an interesting piece in Juan Cole's Informed Comment yesterday. Cole wrote a really sensible response to Robert Gates' recent speech, in which Gates criticized NATO allies for not emulating the United States in spending lavish sums on defense. 

This is part of what Gates said:
"The blunt reality," he continued, "is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense - nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets."
The funny part of this, of course, is that the money that NATO countries have been spending lately has absolutely nothing to do with "their own defense," but rather has gone towards a seemingly endless occupation of Afghanistan and a war against Libya, a country which had attacked no one. So yeah, it does seem strange that American officials would seriously expect anyone to follow their lead.

Cole makes some great points, including:
The problem is that being less militarized is working for the German economy, e.g. Not having so many men under arms or stockpiles of expensive military equipment may actually deter military adventurism of the sort the US has pursued in Iraq (and of which Gates has himself been critical).
The US is is peculiar among industrialized democracies in the massive war budget it passes every year, and in its constant war-making. There is every reason to think that the bloated Pentagon budget actually drags the US into wars. Much of the money is given out to private contractors, who use it to lobby Congress for wars whereby the contractors can make more money. And, having a lot of shiny new military toys creates an impetus to use them before they become outmoded and the comparative advantage that they bestow is lost.
Okay, great! What about Libya? Let 'em have it, JC!
NATO appears to have declined to provide the Free Libya forces with heavy weaponry, which is probably a wise decision. In contrast, the US had great success in overthrowing the Taliban in fall of 2001 by giving close air support to the Northern Alliance; but this quick campaign and the installation of Tajik warlords in power contributed to the Taliban resurgence we are now seeing. NATO commanders no doubt wish they could achieve faster progress in protecting Libyans from the brutal Qaddafi regime, but it is better that things go slowly than that a quick victory by the rebels produces reprisals and feuds that destabilize the country into the future.

I guess it was too much to ask to expect Cole to add the Libya war to the list of military-related expenses that are bleeding the United States dry. Indeed, Cole has been very outspoken in his support of the war. In his "Open Letter to the Left on Libya," Cole argues the following in favor of bombing Libya:
The other Arab Spring demonstrations are not comparable to Libya, because in none of them has the scale loss of life been replicated, nor has the role of armored brigades been as central, nor have the dissidents asked for intervention, nor has the Arab League. For the UN, out of the blue, to order the bombing of Deraa in Syria at the moment would accomplish nothing and would probably outrage all concerned. Bombing the tank brigades heading for Benghazi made all the difference.
That is, in Libya intervention was demanded by the people being massacred as well as by the regional powers, was authorized by the UNSC, and could practically attain its humanitarian aim of forestalling a massacre through aerial bombardment of murderous armored brigades. And, the intervention could be a limited one and still accomplish its goal.
Fair enough, but of course just a few days after the Arab League requested the air war, the Arab League turned around and criticized the direction that the war was taking (as a matter of fact, this happened a week before Cole wrote the words above).

I agree with Cole with respect to the argument that military intervention cannot be ruled out absolutely. The United States was, right, in my opinion, to intervene on behalf of Bosnian Muslims back in the 1990s, and I wish the Clinton administration had done so earlier.

But it's one thing to intervene in the Balkans, it's something else to intervene in the Middle East, where the US has a much more fraught history. In the Middle East, the United States is like a stalker ex-boyfriend: unwelcome even if he's trying to do something decent, for once. The US has simply been involved in too much in the Middle East over the past several decades to be seen as an honest broker, even if the representatives of a group of unelected Arab League governments did ask the UN to intervene.


Speaking of Libya, I really liked Glenn Greenwald's recent critique of the war. Writes Greenwald:
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?
Greenwald then quotes a recent article from the Washington Post from the Washington Post to make a link between the Libya War and oil. Here are some excerpts from the WAPO piece: 

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. 
And hey, guess what? According to the WAPO piece, the oil companies are standing at the pump, waiting for things to cool down:
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."
Obviously, neither Greenwald nor anyone else can crawl inside the heads of the principal players in the Obama administration to discern what, exactly, their motivations were in starting this war.
There is, however, one thing that I think we can reasonably count upon. No matter what happens, the history of the United States, France, and England in the region makes a conclusion of the sort Greenwald is forwarding--ie, that this is being done for oil--an obvious one for people both within the region and outside it to make. As our recent history in Iraq is once again making clear, western interference in the Middle East does tend to result in increased opportunities for large western oil companies.
Obama can claim whatever he wants as a motivation for the war, but win or lose the war is going to be interpreted in terms of oil. And, as I discussed last March, I think it's also worth thinking about what impact US involvement will eventually have upon the legitimacy of the people we're supporting, should they ever get into power. 
I have a lot of respect for Juan Cole, and I believe his blog provides a really important service. But I continue to think involvement in Libya is a really bad idea.
And, with the United States having already spent $750 million on the Libya War as of one month ago, it seems like Libya is a good subject to bring up when talking about the many damaging aspects--to the economy and otherwise--of the wars that W. and Obama have both chosen to fight in our name.

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