Political Calculations of Absurdity on Libya

The attempt on the part of congressional leaders to obstruct growing discontent with Obama’s war in Libya by jumping the gun (so to speak) and approving the war without even having been formally asked to approve it brings with it a whole new host of questions.

First of all, I’d be interested to know how closely McCain and Kerry have been colluding with the administration on this, whether or not it included some top-down direction. Second, what kind of cognitive dissonance must these senior senators be going through to fully recognize the swelling opposition in Congress as well as the overwhelming public opposition, and still push for a resolution granting the President unprecedented authority to wage war with impunity? Can someone in the mainstream media please just ask McCain if there are ever any wars we shouldn’t involve ourselves in and if there are ever any conceivable limits on Executive war-making prerogative?

But an older set of questions is itching me (by older I mean just barely last week). These were articulated by Amy Davidson at the New Yorker blog:

So why would the President choose a bad legal argument over a better one? The better question might just be this: Why is he so reluctant to bring this one to Congress? Is it because he thinks that he can’t get their approval (which should cause him to ask why), because he thinks it’s just a lot of trouble (so are a lot of things worth doing, not to mention ones the law requires of us), or because he’s caught in some web of self-delusion—since he’s not the sort of President, or person, who gets involved with wars, this can’t be one? (It is generally a bad sign when policy decisions provoke politico-psychological speculation.) Or is it a matter of principle—a belief that Presidents shouldn’t have to ask Congress for permission for anything short of D-Day?

It must be a mixture of the last two speculations. Self delusion is conjecture on my part, but its comforting somehow. He lives in his own little bubble as President and good sense just evades him. The last one, though, is the more strategic explanation. If Obama gets away with this piece of Executive overreach, it sets a precedent for whenever he may need it in the future. You never know when an unnecessary, unpopular, illegal opportunity to go to war is going to pop up.

Iraq Violence = Pullout. Afghan Violence = Stay Forever.

During the Bush years, we constantly heard how escalating violence was just Ba’athist or al-Qaeda “dead-enders” mounting their last desperate attempt to crush Democracy. This was proof America’s initial occupation or the “surge” was working, Rumsfeld et al said, so we had to stay the course. Even toward the end of the last administration, we heard that we could not leave Iraq while violence spiraled — that would condemn it to civil war or somehow to Osama bin Laden as mullah-in-chief.

Now that Obama has to make good on at least one of his promises if he ever hopes to be reelected, anything at all that happens in Iraq is proof we have to leave for good and that our enlightened Dear Leader was Right All Along about ending that war (well, eventually). Iraqis have shown they can swing it, Gates or Clinton or whomever blathers, shoring up presidential talking points. Now Obama is the Peace Laureate once again! Never mind all that other stuff.

In Afghanistan, however, more attacks means we have to stay. Oh of course, everyone knows “Afghanistan is not Iraq” and various other places are not still other places, but there must be some metrics by which to assess a situation. It seems like “spiraling violence” or at least “sustained violence,” would be one of those universal parameters by which we can judge the usefulness of an occupation. And not just any violence, but that by a native, domestic population that has no plans to emigrate en masse. It’s cliche, but just ask the Soviets.

Obama is likely to say he wants to “withdraw” some troops in his speech on the war tomorrow. But we haven’t forgotten he naively sent thirty thousand of them himself to Afghanistan in Dec. 2009, a huge escalation that lead to more violence and left the country no closer to “stability.” This also was one of the first validations of terrible Bush logic (The Surge Worked!) of the Obama presidency; of course many more followed. This “withdrawal” is simply a return to the numbers we saw before Obama upped them — that is, if he removes the full 30K men and doesn’t just weasel out at Gates’ recommended and insignificant 3,000 (out of 100,000). Gates, of course, would prefer we remove zero troops.

The Afghanistan withdrawal date, like the Iraq one before it, has been pushed back several times over the many years of America’s longest wars ever. It now stands at 2014. A LOT of room for things to change, and if experience is a guide — and it is — we know a pullout date that far in the future shows a desire to keep the occupation going indefinitely. And there will be lots more bombings and attacks to justify staying. Unlike in Iraq, where it proves we need to leave even faster. Even if only to shift resources to LibyaIraq’s oil is already accounted for, right?

Anything means anything in Obamaland. Nothing new in the world.

Not the Oil? Really?

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.”

Dalmia is responding to Glenn Greenwald’s criticism that I also cited and expanded upon in this piece. She writes:

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.

Gadgetry Beckons Future Shadow Wars

In my report on the incentive for America’s ruling parties to circumvent accountability and the rule of law by conducting wars in secret, technological advances that enable such choices were front and center. Drones and other unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft seem to be the future of American warfare. This obviously complicates issues of limiting the war-making prerogatives of the powerful.

Sunday’s New York Times featured a piece about this developing technology. These killers are getting smaller and more capable. And business is booming…

From blimps to bugs, an explosion in aerial drones is transforming the way America fights and thinks about its wars. Predator drones, the Cessna-sized workhorses that have dominated unmanned flight since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, are by now a brand name, known and feared around the world. But far less widely known are the sheer size, variety and audaciousness of a rapidly expanding drone universe, along with the dilemmas that come with it.

The Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago. Within the next decade the Air Force anticipates a decrease in manned aircraft but expects its number of “multirole” aerial drones like the Reaper — the ones that spy as well as strike — to nearly quadruple, to 536. Already the Air Force is training more remote pilots, 350 this year alone, than fighter and bomber pilots combined.

“It’s a growth market,” said Ashton B. Carter, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer.

The Pentagon has asked Congress for nearly $5 billion for drones next year, and by 2030 envisions ever more stuff of science fiction: “spy flies” equipped with sensors and microcameras to detect enemies, nuclear weapons or victims in rubble. Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Wired for War,” a book about military robotics, calls them “bugs with bugs.”

Read on.

Pulling Obama at Both Ends on Afghanistan Pullout

Obama will make a public decision on an initial draw-down of troops in Afghanistan in the next few weeks. On one end, we have Defense Secretary Gates, General Petraeus, and – officially now – the military as a whole, all pressuring Obama to maintain the surge level of troops (approximately 100,000) until November 2012. WSJ:

The military is asking President Barack Obama to hold off on ending the Afghanistan troop surge until the fall of 2012, in a proposal that would keep a large portion of the 33,000 extra forces in the country through the next two warm-weather fighting seasons.

The military seeks to avoid a scenario in which large numbers of troops are pulled out during the heaviest period of militant activity next year, just as it hopes to be focusing on the violent eastern provinces bordering Pakistan.

On the other end, we have the American people (who generally don’t support the war) and a growing force in Congress.

Nearly half the Senate Democratic Conference, including 10 committee chairmen, sent a letter to President Obama pressing him to shift his strategy in Afghanistan and begin a major drawdown of troops.

Those 24 senators were joined by one Independent and two members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, all of them urging the president to make significant policy changes as Obama’s self-imposed July deadline for a troop drawdown approaches.

“We write to express our strong support for a shift in strategy and the beginning of a sizable and sustained reduction of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, beginning in July 2011,” the lawmakers wrote Wednesday.

Obama is likely to do whatever is most likely to save him face. Unfortunately, that probably means keeping troop levels as they are, or pulling out a mere 3-5,000 as some have suggested. For one, he gets to publicly do the politically safe thing which is side with the military (something the Republicans can’t hammer him on in the upcoming election). Secondly, if he pulled out and violence persists, that’s a harm politically for his campaign; he would be cast as losing the war. If he keeps the surge going and violence remains overwhelmingly high as it is right now, he can say “but it’d be worse if we had left.”

We’re in a world where lives are lost and tyranny persists merely so the American political elite can win elections. It’s very cynical, indeed.

U.S. Contractors ‘Hold Sway’ in Iraqi Oil

In my recent interview on the Alyona Show, Alyona mentioned that American oil companies didn’t necessarily get the biggest share in oil after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Well…

New York Times:

When Iraq auctioned rights to rebuild and expand its oil industry two years ago, the Russian company Lukoil won a hefty portion — a field holding about 10 percent of Iraq’s known oil reserves.

It seemed a geopolitical victory for Lukoil. And because only one of the 11 fields that the Iraqis auctioned off  went to an American oil company — Exxon Mobil — it also seemed as if few petroleum benefits would flow to the country that took the lead role in the war, the United States.

The auction’s outcome helped defuse criticism in the Arab world that the United States had invaded Iraq for its oil. “No one, even the United States, can steal the oil,” the Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said at the time.

But American companies can, apparently, drill for the oil.

In fact, American drilling companies stand to make tens of billions of dollars from the new petroleum activity in Iraq long before any of the oil producers start seeing any returns on their investments.

Lukoil and many of the other international oil companies that won fields in the auction are now subcontracting mostly with the four largely American oil services companies that are global leaders in their field: HalliburtonBaker Hughes, Weatherford International and Schlumberger. Those four have won the largest portion of the subcontracts to drill for oil, build wells and refurbish old equipment.

I have argued that the war in Iraq was about oil not in the sense of access, but primarily for control. American oil companies, especially Exxon Mobil, won out big after the U.S. invasion, with other countries like Russia making out even bigger. But with a troop presence remaining indefinitely and with American contractors having the largest stake in, say, drilling as opposed to refining, marketing, and selling, that control has been achieved.