Foreign Policy Blogs

What Is NATO Doing In Libya Anyway?

Glenn Greenwald lays out the “Libya’s About Oil” angle:

Is there anything more obvious — as the world’s oil supplies rapidly diminish — than the fact that our prime objective is to remove Gaddafi and install a regime that is a far more reliable servant to Western oil interests, and that protecting civilians was the justifying pretext for this war, not the purpose?

Greenwald goes over the same narrative I put forward back in March.  Western oil companies moved into Libya after sanctions were lifted in 2004, but, according to a Wikileaks cable, Libya started to negotiate firmly on exploration contracts, leading some companies (Chevron and Occidental, for example) to decide not to renew their contracts.  But can we so easily conclude, as Glenn Greenwald does, that this explains the U.S. desire to intervene in Libya?  Did the U.S. intervene to install a regime that would hopefully strike better deals with Western oil companies?

There’s no smoking gun.  And, in fact, there’s evidence to suggest the opposite.  As I noted in March, as late as January 2011, the U.S.-Libyan Business Association (a group formed in 2005 that includes BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, Hess, Marathon Oil, Occidental Petroleum, all of whom have had oil interests in Libya) seemed optimistic about the profits they could achieve under Qaddafi.  Though it’s hard to know what they thought when unrest erupted in Libya, for the U.S.-Libya Business Association’s website went dark in February.

For clues, we can also turn to USA*Engage, a business coalition that includes Western energy companies.  But here we find evidence that weighs against Greenwald’s conclusion.  In February, when the Obama administration was trying to decide whether to impose unilateral sanctions on Libya, USA*Engage expressed opposition, stating that multilateral sanctions would be more effective.  But, as Mother Jones noted at the time:

But critics say USA*Engage has a history of opposing unilateral sanctions in order to make it easier for US companies to operate in rogue regimes. Given the lack of international consensus, simply waiting for a strong multilateral response is often unrealistic, they charge. And even when the international community does take action—as the UN Security Council moved to do this week, with American support—it tends to be weaker than the punishment countries like the US dole out.

USA*Engage did publicly express support for UN Security Council resolution 1973, which authorized military intervention, but only after the resolution was passed, and nothing could be done about it.  But USA*Engage’s opposition to strong sanctions measures suggests that the energy industry was not at the forefront of pro-intervention lobbying efforts, as Greenwald contends.

Until someone uncovers more definitive evidence about about the Western energy industry’s stance on the intervention, we’re left to wonder about the “Libya’s About Oil” angle.