In a rather surprising article over at Reason, Shikha Dalmia writes not only that oil is not a driving force in the U.S. intervention in Libya, but that it doesn’t even drive our broader Middle East policy. Indeed, it is a “tired saw invoked by U.S. critics.”
The idea that oil lust drives America’s Middle East policy is a perennial—and tired—saw invoked by U.S. critics both at home and abroad. But why, then, does America keep spurning this oil through sanctions on hostile regimes? In the decade between the two Iraq wars, America wouldn’t let Saddam Hussein sell any oil except for food. Washington’s sanctions on Iranian oil are costing America $38 billion to $76 billion annually in lost revenue. And America had sworn off Libyan oil until Gadhafi abandoned plans to develop weapons of mass destruction and compensated the victims of the Lockerbie terrorist bombing.
That we are after Libya’s oil is particularly untenable for the simple reason that Libya is only a bit player in the world oil market. It is not even among our top 15 crude oil suppliers. The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels a day and Libya produces 1.7 million barrels for the whole globe…
First of all, the notion that the Middle East’s vast energy resources is not a driving factor in U.S. policy towards the region runs directly counter to every cogent, authoritative academic analysis I’ve read on the issue. It also drastically contradicts what every declassified or leaked national security document (some of which I link to here and here) says about U.S. interests and policy in the region.
Further, Dalmia is caught in a very common misconception. American policy towards the Middle East is not about cheap oil prices for U.S. consumers or to help shore up jobs. The U.S. Empire is not entrepreneurial. America keeps “spurning this oil through sanctions on hostile regimes” in order to prevent any state from gaining too much regional hegemony, thus presenting a threat to U.S. power and military prerogative. This is standard knowledge within the foreign policy community. The national security planners in Washington are perfectly fine with cutting off large supplies of oil from “hostile regimes” if it means those regimes are kept weak. The vast energy resources there are extremely important and a strategic game changer, and Washington knows it. The policy is about control.
Libya might be “only a bit player in the world oil market,” but that was changing with the lifting of sanctions in recent years, the opening up of Libya to U.S. oil corporations, and the estimated 43.6 billion barrels of oil in reserves there. Add to that what was revealed to us about the U.S. stake in Libya’s oil from Wikileaks diplomatic cables. Some major Italian and Russian oil deals were developing in Libya and it was revealed through the cables – clear as day – that the U.S. wanted to offset those deals for fear of a power grab by anyone other than America.
Indeed, it seems difficult to make any sense at all of what we know about U.S. policy in the Middle East without oil being viewed as a primary motivating factor. We have troops stationed in and/or prop up client governments in Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Is it a coincidence that the region also possesses some of the world’s greatest oil reserves?
We have mountains of evidence from the scholarship as well as from the defense policymakers themselves as to why America stations military bases, props up Middle Eastern governments, and starts wars over this region (again, see here). So why does Dalmia think we went into Libya? She buys the humanitarian excuse Obama and his team put forth. Exclude the fact that this is becoming even more unlikely as the days pass with NATO now being responsible for more civilian deaths. There is a perfectly good litmus test for whether humanitarian concerns drove our Libya intervention. First of all, do we intervene in the world’s worst cases of humanitarian injustice and genocide? No. Second, do we ourselves conduct and encourage much worse atrocities inside many of Libya’s regional neighbors? Yes.