Focal Points Blog

Regime Change in Libya Could Undermine U.S. Diplomatic Leverage

Tomahawk Launched at Libya(Pictured: Tomahawk missile launched at Gaddafi’s forces.)

“Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” said President Obama on Monday, addressing the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Instead of a policy of regime change, the United State will stick to “the task that I assigned our forces – to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger.”

That is all well and good, except that the immediate danger is the rule of Muammar Gaddafi (“Gaddafi has not yet stepped down from power, and until he does, Libya will remain dangerous”) and the means by which we are we protecting the Libyan people are military attacks against Gaddafi’s forces (“We struck regime forces approaching Benghazi to save that city and the people within it. We hit Gaddafi’s troops in neighboring Ajdabiya, allowing the opposition to drive them out. We hit Gaddafi’s air defenses, which paved the way for a no-fly zone. We targeted tanks and military assets that had been choking off towns and cities, and we cut off much of their source of supply”).

So, what we’re not doing is regime change. What we are doing is making war on Qaddafi’s forces until he has been deposed from power. I leave it to the good judgment of the reader whether these are distinct concepts.

There’s nothing new in presidents lying about military missions to make them more palatable to the voting public, so Obama’s characterization of the Libyan action is not of paramount importance or even interest. But the fact of regime change really is, and it carries damaging implications for American diplomatic prospects in Iran and other countries going forward.

The problem is this: if Gaddafi can relinquish his weapons program and stop supporting international terrorism and still be targeted for regime change, no other country has any incentive to do either of those things. The mission in Libya is a rod that the State Department has crafted for its own back.

“The oldest test in diplomacy is simply this,” Christopher Hitchens puts it, “Who are your friends? Who are your enemies? Do they know that they are? And is it more dangerous to be your friend than your enemy or is it more dangerous to be your enemy than your friend? Are your enemies apprehensive? Are your friends rewarded?”

Well, no one crowed more loudly than Hitchens himself when, apparently out of Iraq-inspired fear of US invasion, Gaddafi surrendered his illegal weapons. And the negotiators who spearheaded the effort to extract contrition from Gaddafi over Lockerbie were furnished with no small amount of hagiography. And yet, neither of these efforts disqualified Gaddafi as a recipient of violent deposition.

Hitchens, in accusing Ahmadinejad’s Iran of “staking what looks like its entire credibility on negating the concept of non-proliferation,” notes that Iran’s weapons program “must mean a lot to them because they could certainly get a great deal of aid, acceptance, trade, prosperity, stability, if they would give up the idea of their own nuclear device.”

He makes a similar point on Iran’s proxy party in Gaza, Hamas, which retains as part of its manifesto the discredited piece of fascist propaganda, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hitchens recommends we demand that Hamas abandon this: “You can say, ‘Will you do that or won’t you? Because if you won’t, it must mean a lot to you, given what you could get by repudiating it.’”

Well, in order for these overtures to carry any weight at all, the U.S. has to ensure that rogue and unsavory parties willing to change course really do stand to gain. The bombs falling on Libya today argue to the contrary.

Samantha Power and Paul Wolfowitz and their ilk will tell us that Libya’s about-face on weapons and terrorism were good for what they were and produced a certain ease of tensions with the US, but Gaddafi’s brutality against the Libyan revolutionaries demanded a response like the inspiringly-named Operation Odyssey Dawn. (Wait: did I just lump liberal interventionists in with neocons? Yes.)

But it is not as though Gaddafi engineered a violent crackdown on peaceful protestors (which is happening in U.S.-backed Bahrain and Yemen, not apparently to Ms. Powers and Mr. Wolfowitz’s consternation); the protestors in Libya were tribal rebels, amassing guns to go and kill Gaddafi and his cohorts. As splendid as it would have been if they’d succeeded (the more painful, the more splendid), there is no meaningful charge that Gaddafi’s response to the looming revolution should have been non-violent, and no reasonable person could have expected as much.

These optics are bad for the US. It looks as though America has had it in for Gaddafi all along, and no action of his could have had any effect. Even if the optics are deceptive, it’s perception that matters when our diplomats sit down opposite hostile powers elsewhere in the world, not least in Tehran.

Or does Obama think we’ve exhausted diplomacy with Iran?

J.A. Myerson, Executive Editor of the Busy Signal, is the Artistic Director of Full of Noises and a teaching artist with Urban Arts Partnership. He writes primarily on American Politics and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter.

US Handing Off Libya From Ourselves to — Ourselves

Those watching President Obama’s speech last night may have been puzzled by his references to transitioning to NATO, as if the United States were bowing out of conducting Libyan airstrikes.

In an Associated Press fact-check of the speech, Calvin Woodward explains (emphasis added).

In transferring command and control to NATO, the U.S. is turning the reins over to an organization dominated by the U.S., both militarily and politically. In essence, the U.S. runs the show that is taking over running the show. . . .

As by far the pre-eminent player in NATO . . . the United States will not be taking a back seat in the campaign even as its profile diminishes for public consumption [and] the same “unique capabilities” that made the U.S. the inevitable leader out of the gate will continue to be in demand. They include a range of attack aircraft, refueling tankers that can keep aircraft airborne for lengthy periods, surveillance aircraft that can detect when Libyans even try to get a plane airborne, and, as Obama said, planes loaded with electronic gear that can gather intelligence or jam enemy communications and radars.

The United States supplies 22 percent of NATO’s budget [and] the supreme allied commander Europe [is] a post always held by an American.

As for any grand speech on the part of the United States revealed in the speech, Daniel Nexon writes at Duck of Minerva via the Progressive Realist:

I might be wrong, but I don’t consider the “Humanitarian-intervention-against-militarily-weak-fossil-fuel-producing-countries-in-strategically-important-regions-that-are-also-located-near-many-large-NATO-military-bases-and-are-run-by-dictators-who-kind-of-piss-us-off-and-have-no-powerful-allies Doctrine” the stuff of Grand Strategy. But if you read between the lines, that’s pretty much the gist of what Obama had to say tonight.

Juan Cole Challenges the Left “to Chew Gum and Walk at the Same Time”

Last night MSNBC’s The Last Word solicited the opinion of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) on President Obama’s speech. After the congressman expressed his opposition to the airstrike’s preemptive nature, he voiced what is perhaps progressives’ main objection to U.S. leadership in the Libyan airstrikes — its lack of a Congressional authorization.

Another guest, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), replied (not his exact words), “True, we should have been debating that instead of de-funding NPR.” But he agreed with the actions and plan that the president outlined in his speech. For the record, either host Lawrence O’Donnell or guest Rachel Maddow made the point that, because the Senate had been consulted, opposition was found mainly in the House.

Meanwhile, Juan Cole’s post on Libya March 27 titled An Open Letter to the Left on Libya, in which he writes that he is “unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on,” has generated much attention and response. Essentially a call to the left to be less doctrinaire in its policy on the use of armed force in causes other than national defense, he makes some points that are difficult to refudiate, I mean refute. Beginning with — congressional authorization aside — its legality:

The intervention in Libya was done in a legal way. It was provoked by a vote of the Arab League, including the newly liberated Egyptian and Tunisian governments. It was urged by a United Nations Security Council resolution, the gold standard for military intervention.

On the reflexive use of force:

The proposition that social problems can never be resolved by military force alone may be true. But there are some problems that can’t be solved unless there is a military intervention first, since its absence would allow the destruction of the progressive forces. . . . If the Left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor, along with large numbers of white collar middle class people.

On selective application of the use of forces:

Many are crying hypocrisy, citing other places an intervention could be staged. [But military] intervention is always selective, depending on a constellation of political will, military ability, international legitimacy and practical constraints. The humanitarian situation in Libya was fairly unique. You had a set of tank brigades willing to attack dissidents [and] aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference.

This situation did not obtain in the Sudan’s Darfur, where the terrain and the conflict were such that aerial intervention alone would have have been useless. . . . But a whole US occupation of Iraq could not prevent Sunni-Shiite urban faction-fighting that killed tens of thousands, so even boots on the ground in Darfur’s vast expanse might have failed.

Note: Cole didn’t mention, for example, repression in Bahrain, where U.S. refusal to intercede is due most likely the state’s hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet. As for whether or not the Libyan airstrikes set a precedent:

The UN Security Council is not a court. . . . and works by political will. Its members are not constrained to do elsewhere what they are doing in Libya unless they so please. . . . But if a precedent is indeed being set that if you rule a country and send tank brigades to murder large numbers of civilian dissidents, you will see your armor bombed to smithereens, I can’t see what is wrong with that.

On al Qaeda fighters joining the opposition:

If there were an uprising against Silvio Berlusconi in Milan, it would likely unite businessmen and factory workers, Catholics and secularists. It would just be the people of Milan. A few old time members of the Red Brigades might even come out, and perhaps some organized crime figures. But to defame all Milan with them would be mere propaganda.


The arguments against international intervention are not trivial, but they all did have the implication that it was all right with the world community if Qaddafi deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds just exercising their right to peaceful assembly and to petition their government.

As a progressive struggling with the aerial strikes, you can be forgiven if Cole’s points give you pause. Returning to Congressional authorization, Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy responded [emphasis added].

In this particular case, the decision of the Obama Administration to engage the country in a new Middle East war without Congressional authorization represents a long-term threat to the U.S. peace movement . . . and Congress is a key arena in which the peace movement tries to assert influence over U.S. policy.

Of course, it’s important to think long-term about the implications of acts of war without congressional authorization. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair to withhold assistance to Libyans to keep from setting an American legal precedent, no matter how important. Focal Points readers are urged to respond to Juan Cole’s points in the comments section.

Libya Intervention Making a Mockery of Political Correctness

The extent to which Libya has rendered the concept of political correctness irrelevant on not only the left, but the right, is breathtaking. For instance, Juan Cole writes:

I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed.

To Cole — whom I’m uncomfortable criticizing because of how valuable he usually is — those who felt otherwise bear a heavy burden.

If the Left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor, along with large numbers of white collar middle class people. Qaddafi would have reestablished himself, with the liberation movement squashed like a bug and the country put back under secret police rule. The implications of a resurgent, angry and wounded Mad Dog, his coffers filled with oil billions, for the democracy movements on either side of Libya, in Egypt and Tunisia, could well have been pernicious.

But the Telegraph reported that the rebel forces incorporate elements of al Qaeda.

Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, the Libyan rebel leader, has said jihadists who fought against allied troops in Iraq are on the front lines of the battle against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. . . . In an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, Mr al-Hasidi admitted that he had recruited “around 25” men from the Derna area in eastern Libya to fight against coalition troops in Iraq.


The libel put out by the dictator, that the 570,000 people of Misrata or the 700,000 people of Benghazi were supporters of “al-Qaeda,” was without foundation. That a handful of young Libyan men from Dirna [reflecting the Telegraph piece, no doubt — RW] and the surrounding area had fought in Iraq is simply irrelevant. . . . All of the countries experiencing liberation movements had sympathizers with the Sunni Iraqi resistance; in fact opinion polling shows such sympathy almost universal throughout the Sunni Arab world. All of them had at least some fundamentalist movements.

However true that may be, it’s awkward, to say the least, when supporting a U.S. action requires defending possible al Qaeda involvment. Equally as difficult is defending our intervention in Libya when we’ve abstained in other hot spots (not to mention the Congo and Darfur). As Conn Hallinan writes in a Focal Points post titled Is the Libya Intervention Directed at China?: “Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, where civilians are also being shot up, beaten, and generally abused.” By way of explaining he cites the familiar refrain “It’s all about the oil.”

Okay, here is the cynical joke: “Is it all about oil? Nope. Some of it is about natural gas.”

Not just our access to it either, but blocking China’s.

Insuring access to oil and gas is a major focus of Chinese foreign policy, particularly because Beijing is nervous about how it currently obtains its supplies. Some 80 percent are transported by sea, and all of those routes involve choke points currently controlled by the U.S.

Thus, the Chinese, no doubt, understand a key reason

. . . why the U.S. is bombing Libya and not challenging Bahrain and Yemen: Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet [which] controls the Hormuz Straits, through which Saudi Arabian, Iranian, and Omanian oil passes. [Meanwhile] Yemen’s port of Aden dominates the Red Sea [and the Fifth] dominates the straits of Bab el-Mandab that control access to the Red Sea and through which Sudan’s oil is shipped into the Indian Ocean. In addition the Malacca Straits between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula is the major transit point for oil going to China. The U.S. Seventh Fleet controls that choke point.

Hallinan concludes

In the end, it is not so much about oil and gas itself, as the control of energy. Any country that corners energy supplies in the coming decades will be in a powerful position to dictate a whole lot of things to the rest of the world.

A part of me wants to believe that because it’s international and has, one likes to think, a humanitarian component that the Libya intervention has the potential to be a new model. In fact, the current of energy needs always runs through actions such as this like a transcontinental oil pipeline.

Oh, for Those Halcyon Days When Nuclear Weapons Were Scarier Than Reactors

Since nuclear weapons were invented, this is only the third time that nuclear reactors have stolen the spotlight as an existential threat from nuclear weapons, their brother in alarms. In 1957 Windscale (when the core of a nuclear reactor in England caught fire), in 1979 Three Mile Island in 1979, in 1986 Chernobyl. Now Fukushima.

Just in case you’ve forgotten, here’s a reminder of how frightening nuclear weapons are, from Ron Rosenbaum’s new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (emphasis added).

One disturbing result of recent nuclear historiography . . . has been the revelation that even the purportedly more stable nuclear deterrence system of the Cold War produced a far greater number of close calls during the first nuclear era than we imagined. It turns out we weren’t scared enough, or as much as we should have been.

Just because Fukushima will be (presumably) brought under control doesn’t mean we’re safe. For those who believe a meltdown is unlikely, there’s always all those spent fuel rods laying around and the threat of a terrorist attack. While, of course, nuclear weapons are the much greater threat to humanity, we can’t let it eclipse the danger that nuclear energy also poses.

Ed Schultz’s Transformation from Progressive Firebrand to Cruise-Missile Liberal

Ed SchultzWe Are All Neocons Now

Or the Perils of Trusting a Duplicitous President Too Much

As American bombs rain down death and destruction on an Arab nation, a prominent cable news host proclaims, “The president of the United States…deserves the benefit of the doubt and our support in his decision to use military force” because “this is all about democracy.” Readers would be forgiven for faintly hearing those words in the voice of Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, but would be wrong: it’s MSNBC’s Ed Shultz, writing for the Huffington Post.

Schultz’s employment of tortured logic, misdirection and arrant nonsense is all that seems liberal about this piece; it’s enough to make a body suspect that Schultz’s breathless opposition to the Bush Administration’s foreign policy was borne not of policy principle but partisan hackery.

The deficiencies are manifold and obvious.

Schultz’s confidence in the mission is primarily inspired by the President’s claim that “this won’t be a long-term operation. Matter of days, not a matter of weeks. Not even months.” Perhaps Mr. Schultz would have been kind enough to cite a single example of an American military action that was only as long as its executing President advertised at first. We’ve still got troops in Germany and Korea, and of course our nation-building adventures in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia began as internationally implemented no-fly zones the U.S. supported. Indeed, the President himself has already admitted to having punked Schultz, confessing that this will be a longer engagement than previously announced.

Schultz’s support for the mission is additionally bolstered by its alleged early success. Writes Schultz, “Since we started this mission, Gaddafi hasn’t been killing civilians, his own people.” How he squares this assertion with reports like Reuters’ that “Gaddafi tanks move in again on besieged Libyan city,” his readers are left to wonder. One possibility is that Schultz hasn’t encountered such reports, which implicates him in lousy journalism and irresponsible writing. Another is that he has but won’t say so, which implicates him in conscious mendacity and irresponsible writing.

On the mendacity question, Schultz contends that his support for the war is animated by President Obama’s consistent honesty. “There have been no lies told, no fear games played on the American people by President Obama and his administration.” To Schultz, Obama’s description of 50,000 troops engaging in counter-terror and security missions as the end of combat missions in Iraq indicates a commitment to openness and honesty. Equally forthright was his campaign-era admiration for whistle-blowers (Their “acts of courage and patriotism” should be “encouraged, rather than stifled”) in light of his administration’s treatment of Bradley Manning. Or is it the President’s rabid escalation of the war in Afghanistan (and its expansion over the eastern border into Pakistan, where civilians are routinely killed by secret and illegal drone attacks) that gives Shultz the impression that the Obama foreign policy team is upstanding and trustworthy?

Rather than presenting a case for the invasion, Schultz takes the opportunity to ridicule the Republicans’ critique of it. “Why?” he invites us to ask, “Because he didn’t do it their way? He didn’t go far enough? He actually had a coalition?” It should be said from the outset that, even if the Republicans’ complaints were the stupidest imaginable, that still would not constitute an argument for the wisdom and righteousness of the policy. As it happens, however, they are anything but.

Speaker Boehner, in his letter to the President (PDF), echoes Schultz’ sentiments about the moral defensibility of the action, writing, “The United States has long stood with those who seek freedom from oppression through self-government and an underlying structure of basic human rights.” But among his concerns, Boehner cites his anxiety that “military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America’s role is in achieving that mission.”

Now, perhaps Schultz knows whether Obama wants regime change, a properly observed ceasefire, a partition of the country or merely a change in the Libyan revolution’s momentum in favor of the revolutionaries, but I don’t, and I don’t see how Mr. Boehner’s concern is illegitimate. He asks Obama to detail the mission, the command structure, the policy goals, the length of America’s engagement in the coalition, the projected cost, etc. Which of these does Schultz find Boehner – and the rest of us – unworthy of knowing? That these are the words of an obvious hypocrite (who cares not a whit for these answers in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan) does not make them wrong or not worth addressing.

No more does the fact that there is a more fulsome coalition attending to the Libyan intervention than did the Iraq one testify to the policy’s rectitude, and as Schultz surely knows being in the minority of many issues, appeals to consensus almost always conceal a sloppy analysis. What but a sloppy analysis would allow Schultz to criticize the GOP, apparently unironically, for having “steamrolled America into two wars” in the same breath as he defends the president who has steamrolled America into a third – readers with a keen memory may recall that the first war was unanimously approved by both congressional houses apart from Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) and the second one on an only slightly less bipartisan basis. So much for a steamroll. By contrast, there hasn’t even been a vote on the Libya matter. Not even a debate.

Schultz already concedes too much by affirming the right of the U.S. to make war in a sovereign nation, claiming humanitarian grounds. Empires always cloak themselves in noble language when moving to attack other countries – the invasion is for civilization or freedom or democracy or human rights. If Schultz can be suckered into supporting a war by the empty promises of a deceitful president, what can’t he be made to do?

The answer seems like it’s: agree with Republicans. Even when they’re right.

J.A. Myerson, Executive Editor of the Busy Signal, is the Artistic Director of Full of Noises and a teaching artist with Urban Arts Partnership. He writes primarily on American Politics and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter.

Libya: “R2P” and Humanitarian Intervention Are Concepts Ripe for Exploitation

Libya bombingReasonable people can disagree on the appropriateness of the decision by the United States and its NATO allies to attack Libya in the wake of the Gadaffi regime’s offensive against rebel-held cities under the doctrine of “the responsibility to protect.” Though the intervention likely prevented a slaughter, there is no guarantee that it won’t simply protract a bloody military stalemate that could result in at least as many civilian deaths. There are any number of other legitimate concerns raised by those distressed over the fact that there is now a third country in the greater Middle East in which the United States has found itself at war. At the same time, there are also legitimate arguments being made by prominent human rights advocates arguing that there is still a moral imperative for the use of force to avoid a large-scale massacre by a criminal regime.

In any case, let’s be clear: Even if one can justify the war on Libya on humanitarian grounds, this is probably not why it’s actually being fought.

The establishment of a no-fly zone was supported by the League of Arab States, an organization composed primarily of pro-Western autocracies which have shown little hesitance in brutally suppressing their own pro-democracy struggles. There was initially a fair amount of popular support within many Arab countries – even among some pro-democracy activists normally critical of U.S. interventionism – for some limited outside assistance to prevent the Libyan opposition from being wiped out. However, the air and missile strikes have gone well beyond simply protecting civilians from bombings by pro-government forces to active support for an armed opposition. This, combined with the failure of rebels to take greater advantage of the large-scale outside support to regain the offensive, has resulted in growing nervousness, even from top officials. As Arab League secretary general Amr Mussa told reporters, “What has happened in Libya differs from the goal of imposing a no-fly zone and what we want is the protection of civilians and not bombing other civilians.”

Despite its potential of being abused, the concept of an international “responsibility to protect” is both legally and morally valid in theory. National sovereignty should not provide a tyrant protection to unleash a genocidal campaign against his own people. However, as horrific as the military response by Gaddafi towards civilians in suppressing both armed and nonviolent forms of resistance against his autocratic rule, it would naïve to claim that foreign intervention is prompted by Western leaders’ concern about protecting civilian lives. The United States, Great Britain and France have each allied with governments – such as Guatemala, Indonesia, Colombia, and Zaire – which, in recent decades, have engaged in the slaughter of civilians as bad or worse as had been occurring in Libya.

The number of civilian casualties from Gaddafi’s attacks is difficult to verify. Some estimates run as high as 8,000, some as low as 1,000, but most estimates put the number of civilians killed during the five weeks between the start of the uprising and the Western intervention country at approximately 1,700 people, roughly the same number of civilians killed during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon and its 2008 war on the Gaza Strip combined. Rather than referring those responsible to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or engage in military intervention to stop the slaughter, as has been the case of Libya, both the U.S. Congress and the administration vigorously defended Israel’s assaults of heavily-populated civilian areas and condemned UN agencies and leading international jurists for documenting Israeli violations of international humanitarian law and for recommending that officials of both Israel and its Arab adversaries suspected of war crimes be referred to the ICC.

The principal intellectual advocate of the Responsibility to Protect is Gareth Evans, former head of the International Crisis Group, who has also emerged as one of the most vocal proponents of what he referred to as “the overwhelming moral case” for military intervention against Gaddafi. Ironically, as Australian foreign minister, Evans was a major defender of Indonesia’s genocidal war against East Timor, which took the lives of over 200,000 civilians, and repeatedly downplayed and even covered up for Indonesian war crimes.

Hypocrisy and double-standards regarding military intervention does not automatically mean that military intervention in this case is necessarily wrong. Though many of us familiar with Libya remain dubious, it cannot be ruled out that events could transpire in such a way that this intervention could prove to have saved lives, brought stability, and promoted a democratic transition. However, it would be naïve to believe that the attacks on Libya are motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns. Certainly, there aren’t many Libyans – even those who support foreign intervention on behalf of the uprising – who believe this. Ongoing U.S. support of the Yemeni and Bahraini regimes as they brutally suppress nonviolent pro-democracy protesters raises questions as to why the U.S. is so quick to intervene militarily against the Libyan regime suppressing an armed rebellion by those whose commitment to democracy in more suspect.

As a result, any honest debate on Libya should not be based just upon the question as to whether foreign military intervention is necessary to stop widespread repression. It should also be as to whether the United States should take sides in a civil war. It should also be as to whether democracy can be imposed through air strikes. It should also be as to whether the best way to overthrow dictators is through a foreign-backed armed uprising or – as demonstrated in Egypt, Tunisia, Serbia, Chile, the Philippines, Indonesia, Poland, and dozens of other countries – whether the people of the affected countries themselves be allowed to do so through the power of mass strategic nonviolent action.

Is the Libya Intervention Directed at China?

AFRICOMCynicism is not a healthy sentiment, and as the late Molly Ivins pointed out, it absolutely wrecks good journalism. But watching events in the Middle East unfold these days makes it a pretty difficult point of view to avoid.

Let’s take the current U.S. bombing of Libya. The rationale behind United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians from being beaten, shot up, and generally abused.

But while this applies to Libya, it does not apply to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, where civilians are also being shot up, beaten, and generally abused. Is this because Moammar Gadhafi is uniquely evil? Crazier and odder, certainly, but being in the “opposition” in any of those countries is not a path to easy retirement. Civil liberties don’t exist, prisons are chock full of political prisoners, and getting whacked if you don’t like the leader is an operational hazard.

So what’s it all about? Okay, here is the cynical joke: “Is it all about oil? Nope. Some of it is about natural gas.”

Too simplistic? Maybe, but consider the following.

1) In 2009, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted that world oil reserves had “peaked” and that over the next several decades supplies would drop and prices would rise. There is some controversy over the study, but there is general agreement that easy-to-get petroleum sources are getting harder and harder to find.

2) Approximately 65 percent of the world’s remaining oil reserves are in the Middle East, as well as considerable amounts of natural gas. Iran has the second greatest reserves of gas outside of Russia.

3) The U.S.—with the largest economy in the world—uses around 21 million barrels of oil per day (bpd). Since it produces only 7.5 million bpd domestically, it imports two thirds of its oil. Its major sources are (in descending order) Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Venezuela, and Iraq.

4) China—the world’s number two economy—uses about 8 million bpd, a demand that is projected to rise to 11.3 million bpd by 2015. Since it only produces 3.7 million bpd domestically, it too relies on imported oil. It main suppliers are (in descending order) Saudi Arabia, Iran, Angola, Russia, Oman and Sudan.

It is estimated that, sometime between 2030 and 2050, China will surpass the U.S. and become the world’s number one economy—provided that it can secure enough energy for its growing industrial needs. Insuring access to oil and gas is a major focus of Chinese foreign policy, particularly because Beijing is nervous about how it currently obtains its supplies. Some 80 percent are transported by sea, and all of those routes involve choke points currently controlled by the U.S. The U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain controls the Hormuz Straits, through which Saudi Arabian, Iranian, and Omanian oil passes. The Fifth also dominates the straits of Bab el-Mandab that control access to the Red Sea and through which Sudan’s oil is shipped into the Indian Ocean. In addition the Malacca Straits between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula is the major transit point for oil going to China. The U.S. Seventh Fleet controls that choke point.

China’s nervousness over its sea-based oil supplies is one of the major reasons behind Beijing’s crash naval program, its construction of ports in South and Southeast Asia, and its efforts to build land-based pipelines from Russia, Central Asia, and Pakistan.

The Chinese are also trying to cope with the fact that Iran, its second largest supplier of oil and gas, is currently under international sanctions that have reduced production and cut into China’s supplies. Beijing has invested upwards of $120 billion to upgrade Iran’s energy industry, but recently has had to cut back investments because its banks could end up being sanctioned for helping out the Teheran regime.

The Chinese are not the slightest bit cynical about why the U.S. is bombing Libya and not challenging Bahrain and Yemen: Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and Yemen’s port of Aden dominates the Red Sea. China can play chess.

As for Libya, the U.S. doesn’t get oil from Libya, but its allies in Europe do. And the current crisis is African Command’s (Africom) coming out party. Up to now the record of the spanking new military formation has been less than impressive. First, no one would host it, because the U.S. military in Africa makes the locals nervous. So it is still based in Germany. Then it coordinated the absolutely disastrous Ethiopian invasion of Somalia that ended up turning most of the country over to the extremist Shabab.

But Libya is a fresh slate for Africom, and that is making the Chinese even more nervous (and explains why they have been so cranky about civilian casualties in Libya). When Africom was in its infancy it war-gamed a military intervention in the Gulf of Guinea in case civil disturbances caused any disruptions in oil supplies. Angola, China’s other major African supplier, is in the Gulf of Guinea. It hardly seems like a coincidence that, at the very moment that African oil supplies become important, the U.S. creates a new military formation for the continent. Africom is currently advising and training the military forces of 53 countries in the region.

Okay, so here you are in Beijing. Your industries are clamoring for power. Media in the United States reflect a growing hostility toward you, with headlines in newspapers reading, “The Chinese Tiger Shows Its Claws,” and U.S. politicians routinely blame you for America’s economic problems. And the U.S. has basically puts its thumb on each one of your oil and gas sources. Nobody is cutting off any supplies at this point, but the implied threat is always there.

In end, it is not so much about oil and gas itself, as the control of energy. Any country that corners energy supplies in the coming decades will be in a powerful position to dictate a whole lot of things to the rest of the world. That’s not cynicism, its cold-blooded calculation. And right now a lot of people in the Middle East are paying the price of the ticket.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

Consistency Is the Hobgoblin of Those Who Oppose Supporting the Libyan Rebels

Libya BenghaziAs Western intervention against the Qaddhafi regime enters its seventh day, rebels remain enthusiastic. The Arab League, though considerably less enthusiastic, also continues to back the effort. In the United States, however, some commentators have adopted a more critical approach.

One such figure is Glenn Greenwald, who stands out as perhaps the most principled and scathing media critic with a sizeable audience. In a blog post yesterday, titled, “The manipulative pro-war argument in Libya,” Greenwald takes the New Republic’s John Judis to task for asserting that opponents of intervention are indifferent to the rebels’ plight:

[D]o you support military intervention to protect protesters in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies from suppression?… Did you advocate military intervention to protect protesters in Iran and Egypt, or to stop the Israeli slaughter of hundreds of trapped innocent civilians in Gaza and Lebanon or its brutal and growing occupation of the West Bank?

Greenwald then delivers the blow: “If not, doesn’t that necessarily mean — using [your own] reasoning — that you’re indifferent to the suffering of all of those people…?”

This rebuttal smartly stands Judis’ logic on its head: those favoring military action in Libya cannot blithely assume that opponents neglect the plight of others when, in truth, most people on both sides of the argument reject military action elsewhere in the world — not out of callousness — but over concern about the consequences of more violence.

The problem, however, is that many bloggers and writers — including one approvingly linked by Greenwald — now brandish this line as an all-purpose rationale for opposing action. “If you do not support military intervention against so-and-so,” goes the argument, “then you are a hypocrite for supporting intervention in Libya; therefore, it is wrong.”

This line of reasoning suffers from at least three logical fallacies.

1. Avoiding The Issue

A failure to solve all the world’s ills does not justify a failure to address one particular ill.

On more than one occasion, defenders of Israeli occupation have pointed to injustices committed by Arab rulers, a deflection which, in their minds, somehow mitigates the brutality of Israeli colonialism. And by the same logic, defenders of apartheid in South Africa could point to atrocities in other parts of Africa to argue that no one should oppose white supremacy until all the continent’s other problems were fixed first.

This paralyzing notion — you should do nothing until you do everything — could be applied to most any situation, and with equally ridiculous results.

In short, pointing to a failure to intervene militarily in crises around the world says nothing about the pros and cons of helping Libyan rebels.

2. A False Equivalency

While it is illogical to make support for military intervention in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or Israel a precondition for helping Libyan rebels, it is wrong to posit that intervention in those countries would be equivalent to the mission in Libya in the first place.

In the case of America’s allies, the administration could likely stop the bloodshed by ending its military, diplomatic, and political cover for the oppressive regimes. That would place serious pressure on rulers who depend on American enablement and impede their ability to inflict violence on their victims.

With Qaddhafi, those levers of influence are absent.

3. Consistent Immorality is No Virtue; Inconsistent Morality is a Lesser Vice

The heart of the popular anti-interventionist argument — “you are a hypocrite” — is a moral one: but it is a heart that does not beat.

For while it is deplorable that policymakers apply their moral outrage selectively (in accordance with perceived national interests), that does not mean we should abandon the moral impulse altogether for the sake of consistency.

Consider, for instance, a scenario where ten innocent men are lined up to be shot. A bystander intervenes and saves the life of one or two men, but, for whatever selfish reason, leaves the rest to die. Now consider a parallel scenario, wherein the only difference is that the bystander does absolutely nothing and leaves all ten men to their demise.

Which is the better choice: consistency or hypocrisy?

Some arguments against intervention deserve serious consideration. The “hypocrisy” mantra, however, is not one of them.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam blogs on Islam and America at his website, Crossing the Crescent.

Didn’t Take Long for Libyan Rebels to Hollow the “Humanitarian” Out of “Intervention,” Did It?

The headline to a March 24 Los Angeles Times article by David Zucchino reads Libyan rebels appear to take leaf from Kadafi’s playbook. To wit:

The rebels of eastern Libya have found much to condemn about the police state tactics of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi: deep paranoia, mass detentions, secret prisons and tightly scripted media tours.

But some of those same tactics appear to be creeping into the efforts of the opposition here as it seeks to stamp out lingering loyalty to Kadafi. Rebel forces are detaining anyone suspected of serving or assisting the Kadafi regime, locking them up in the same prisons once used to detain and torture Kadafi’s opponents.

And who are these “suspected mercenaries and government spies”? “Libyan blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa,” Zucchino reports.

“We know who they are,” said Abdelhafed Ghoga, the chief opposition spokesman. He called them “people with bloodstained hands” and “enemies of the revolution.” Any suspected Kadafi loyalist or spy who does not surrender, Ghoga warned, will face revolutionary “justice.”

At one detention center, a

. . . young man from Ghana bolted from the prisoners queue. He shouted in English at an American reporter: “I’m not a soldier! I work for a construction company in Benghazi!” . . . The Ghanaian was one of 25 detainees from Chad, Niger, Sudan, Mali and Ghana described by opposition officials as mercenaries, though several of them insisted they were laborers.

All too easy to finger immigrants and those of a darker hue. Meanwhile, it’s characteristic of rebels that they often fail to understand that, when applied to justice, the use of the word revolutionary doesn’t refer to its definition as a novelty. Justice isn’t a new car you’re taking for a joy ride. Ideally, it means that justice in their country is finally afforded an opportunity to be what it’s meant to be — truly just.

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