Oil, Civil War, and the Politics of Intervention

March 6, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 2 Comments
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Reports of four British Special Air Service (SAS) troops being captured 30 kilometers from Benghazi is ominous especially since the rebels they were ostensibly sent to help had no inkling that these troops were being parachuted into the areas they control. The refusal of the Gaddafi regime to crumble in the face of widespread protests–unlike the regimes in Tunisia to its west and Egypt to its east–has meant that the struggle for power in that oil-rich desert state had flared into a full-blown civil war.

While it is much too early to predict how the civil war will pan out, it has provided a wedge for US and European leaders to speculate openly about intervening in Libya. That Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman called to arm the rebels comes as no surprise, it is troubling that President Barack Obama has refused to take the options of imposing a ‘no-fly zone’ and military intervention off the table, especially after his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, injected a rare bit of sanity when he told cadets at West Point:

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”


Ostensibly, the case for intervention is couched in humanitarian terms and cloaked under the UN doctrine of the “responsibility to protect.” It is easy to dismiss the humanitarian justifications as Seumas Milne has shown:

“When more than 300 people were killed by Hosni Mubarak’s security forces in a couple of weeks, Washington initially called for “restraint on both sides”. In Iraq, 50,000 US occupation troops protect a government which last Friday [25 Feb 2011] killed 29 peaceful demonstrators demanding reform. In Bahrain, home of the US fifth fleet, the regime has been shooting and gassing protesters with British-supplied equipment for weeks.”

The ‘prime directive’ if you will of the UN doctrine of “responsibility to protect” is that intervention does no harm–and on these grounds, any intervention in Libya would fail spectacularly! Even some opponents of the Libyan regime have warned against foreign intervention. Certain Russian and Chinese vetoes ensure that there will be no UN Security Council sanction for intervention and that any intervention will be under NATO auspices–or by the US, the UK and some of their allies acting on their own initiative.

If there is intervention, it is almost certain that it will have to be followed by an occupation–the opposition is disparate and only united against the regime; it is clear that the regime has some significant support–otherwise it would not have been able to mount an offensive. Since both factions will have access to weapons, an occupation to pacify the country would have to follow.

Moreover, for all the talk of Libyan government forces launching murderous assaults against its citizens, the Libyan military has been largely ineffective. Opposition forces already are reported to control some 80 percent of Libya’s oil supplies. Government planes have been unable to bomb targets–leading to speculation that the sympathies of pilots are with the rebels though it is at least equally plausible that it is because they are poorly trained.

Aljazeera English that the strength of the Libyan military is overly exaggerated. Years of sanctions and poor maintenance has meant that much of its military hardware are obsolescent or unusable and it estimates that the regime has only about 10-12 thousand well-trained and well-armed troops.

The very weakness of the Libyan forces makes threats of foreign intervention ominous. If US, British or NATO forces can intervene on a pretext, they can establish bases in Libya as they can install another kleptocratic regime–once such bases are established, they take a life of their own and are rarely dismantled as shown by the history of post-Second World War US bases.

Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa and that as world demand for petroleum surges insatiably, there is a greater urgency to control sources of supply. However, Michael Klare has documented that every effort by the UK and the US to control supplies has led to disaster–stretching from the coup d’etat that London and Washington engineered to depose the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953, to the fall of the Shah in 1979, and to the two invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003. To site bases that could be used for war against another Arab country would be anathema to the protestors.

Advocates of foreign intervention, as Milne also notes,

“seem brazenly untroubled by the fact that throughout the Arab world, foreign intervention, occupation and support for dictatorship is regarded as central to the problems of the region. Inextricably tied up with the demand for democratic freedoms is a profound desire for independence and self-determination.”

Riots across North Africa and the Persian Gulf for once is not about imperialism or Israel–but about food and employment, for democracy and dignity, and against corruption and nepotism. Here too Libya is noteworthy in that it has the best Human Development Index among all African states. Here it is a case of the young and the middle class demanding an end to autocracy more than the bread-and-butter struggles that animated the Egyptian revolts and these rebels are not going to tolerate the establishment of another pro-Western kleptocracy.

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  1. IT is shocking to learn that the government of India headed by Manmohan Singh, the most inept and corrupt prime minister that free india has seen to date, has sent two warships to the Mediterranean, obviously to please, if not at the behest of, the US. I am afraid, if the West led by the US decides to intervene in Libya, without the approval of the UNSC as it did in Iraq, Manmohan Singh government may join hands with them. Incidentally, ever since Manmohan Singh became the PM, he has been playng second fiddle to the US — a trend set by the previous PM, BJP’s Vajpayee — and today india has become a vassal state of the US. Gandhiji, Jawaharlal, Azad, Gaffar Khan and all those who sacrificed their precious lives on the altar of India’s freedom must be turning in their graves.
    V.M.Mohanraj

  2. […] of defense who advises a president to intervene militarily in Asia or Africa ought to have his head examined. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that even the […]


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