On January 28, 2003, George W. Bush gave a 50-minute State of the Union address, nearly half of which was devoted to his decision to invade Iraq. During this segment, he didn’t mention oil or, God forbid, the petro dollar even once, but focused relentlessly on weapons of mass destruction. America and the rest of the world were threatened by a dictator who was “assembling the world’s most dangerous weapons,” “a brutal dictator with a history of reckless aggression, with ties to terrorism,” so that “this nation and our friends” were “all that stand between a world at peace, and a world of chaos and constant alarm.” The decision to attack Iraq, then, was a sacred, providential duty, a “call of history has come to the right country.” Bush concluded, “America is a strong nation and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without conquest, and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.”
Though America is always engaged in several wars simultaneously, she really hates to make wars, so we’re told by each U.S. president. An American war is always humanitarian in aim and execution. We wage war not because we love to kick ass, then go home, not because we’re born to kill, murder ’em all, let God sort ’em out, etc., but because we love foreigners, actually, the browner the better. It doesn’t matter if they have petroleum or not, or if they’re scarfed with a keffiyeh (while eating a donut). America wages war out of compassion.
Thus, this week, we’re told by Obama that his attack on Libya is to prevent innocents from being massacred and chaos from spreading, “For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom. Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges.” Reluctant, yes, but not when it is America’s duty, again, to attack a sovereign nation, “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
Like Bush, Obama did not mention oil once, but surely, some of you are saying, this is not really about oil, again? Here are the facts: Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa. Sweeter and cheaper to extract than elsewhere, Libyan oil is also easier to bring to market, thanks to its proximity to Europe. About three fourths of this is exported to NATO countries, primarily Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Greece and the UK. With the exception of Germany, these are also the main European nations attacking Libya, along with the USA.
But why attack Ghaddafi if he’s already selling you oil? Why upset the status quo? It’s because on January 25, 2009, Gaddafi declared, “The oil-exporting countries should opt for nationalization because of the rapid fall in oil prices. We must put the issue on the table and discuss it seriously. Oil should be owned by the state at this time, so we could better control prices by the increase or decrease in production.”
The countries with oil concessions in Libya are Italy, France, Spain, the US, the UK, Norway, Russia and Germany. See a pattern here? Norway is also in the US-led coalition to attack Libya. It’s noteworthy that France is particularly belligerent this time. In 2003, by contrast, France was vehemently against invading Iraq, since it had much dealing with Hussein and would lose much should he be replaced.
To Francophobes, France’s stance on Iraq proved that it had no backbone, as suspected; that it would fight with its feet and, ahem, make love with its face, as the saying goes; that it wouldn’t stand up to terrorists. Two American congressmen, Robert Ney and Walter Jones, even started a campaign to rename french fries “freedom fries.” What a way to go down in history. To Francophiles, however, France was to be applauded for refusing to be cowed by America, but the truth is much simpler. France didn’t want to lose the billions Hussein already owed it, and the billions it would make if he stayed in power. It came down, as it always does in these situations, to money.
And so it is with Libya. Wanting to gain access to Libya’s oil, the United States is not just helping one side in a civil war, but directing the fight. The rebel’s military leader is a long time CIA asset, Khalifa Hifter. Before returning to Benghazi last week, Hifter spent two decades in Northern Virginia, a five-minute drive from CIA headquarters.
The rebels are flying the old flag of the Kingdom of Libya. Some are carrying photos of King Idris. Even the French flag has been displayed, leading French Prime Minister Fillon to proclaim, “There is hope in Benghazi now, the French flag is being waved there, and also the flag of a different Libya which dreams of democracy and modernization.” I would not equate flying a monarchical flag and the flag of a country that colonized a good chunk of Northern Africa not that long ago with “dreams of democracy and modernization.” Under King Idris, Libya was also host to American and British military bases. With 4,600 Yanks, Wheelus air base was even dubbed “Little America by the Mediterranean.” Gaddafi ended all that.
Funny, but the same countries that now attack Gaddafi sold him lots of weapons, more than a billion’s worth since 2005. The British Special Air Service even trained Libyan Special Forces, and American war colleges instructed Libyan military officers “to fight terrorists.” From the Libyan government’s point of view, the rebels now supported by America and the rest sure fit that description.
To gain access to oil, all these countries armed a man they now call a mad dog, but Gaddafi didn’t just become a tyrant two weeks ago. He’s been embraced by Tony Blair, feted by Nicolas Sarkozy, visited by John McCain and even had his hand kissed by Silvio Berlusconi, so everything was manageable until he threatened to nationalize Libya’s oil in 2009. As he was perfectly sane, at least from the Libyan point of view, as he promised to distribute more oil revenues to his own people, the West decided he must be ousted.
We will see if Obama can stick to his promise of sending no ground troops, but for now, the alliance is fighting strictly from the air. This is macabrely appropriate as Tripoli, Libya was the site of the first air assault in world history. A century ago, during Italy’s invasion, Giulio Gavotti dropped four hand grenades onto an Ottoman Empire encampment. He had no idea how many he killed. Then, as now, it’s impossible to countenance anyone’s mortality from such a height. In any case, Gavotti landed a hero. Italy’s best known poet at the time, Gabriele D’Annunzio, lauded him, “From your wing you hurl your bomb / On an instant massacre; and it appears / Your live heart is warmed.”
Now, as foreign planes fly over Libya yet again, we are told that the people below are grateful. Thanks for the depleted uranium, sirs! My children and my children’s children will also thank you. As least in the desert, there won’t be any agent orange raining down. An American pilot had to parachute because his plane malfunctioned. According to Obama, he was greeted by a young Libyan “who came to his aid [and] said, ‘We are your friends. We are so grateful to these men who are protecting the skies.’” Was this young Libyan speaking in English, or did the pilot understand Arabic? Can you spell CIA? Do you smell a fish?
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.