2011-03-29 US President Obama's Speech on Libya & What the US Stands to Gain from Being Involved

ImageLibya is not Iraq but on Monday, March 28, 2011, US President Barack Obama delivered an address that aimed to brand a pre-emptive war and sell it to the American people. Obama sought to justify intervention into Libya by making the case that it was in America’s interest to act and if action had not been taken a mass atrocity could have taken place.

Few would probably dispute the accuracy of Obama’s explanation of events that have unfolded in accurate. Although the narrative explicitly serves the Western powers that have mounted an intervention, it is all true that Gaddafi launched a military campaign against his own people, attacked hospitals and ambulances, arrested, sexually assaulted and killed journalists, choked of fuel and food supplies, shut off water to Misratah, cities, shelled mosques and apartments, and used jets and helicopters to unleash air assaults on Libyans. It is true that a major humanitarian crisis was erupting, one that human rights organizations that handle refugees were struggling to prevent from worsening.

The “rebels” (that should not be regarded as one homogenous group of people) in Benghazi did face an onslaught from Gaddafi’s forces. Some of the “rebels” did in fact want Western powers to intervene. And so, a UN Security Council Resolution was obtained giving the US, European Union countries and others permission to take action.

But, now that the forces have intervened – now that NATO has taken charge and “allies” of the US like the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey along with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are involved, a key dilemma presents itself. Surely, nobody wants people who are practicing self-determination against a brutal oppressor to be massacred but what happens in Libya now that forces are involved? And, who is going to run the country? If the "rebels" aren't winning this on their own now, will Western powers really be willing to step out of the way and let them govern after the "mission" is accomplished? ["Mission" in quotes because it is unclear what powers involved think the endgame of this intervention should be.]

US President Obama opened his speech with this frame, “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. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.”

William Blum’s compilation of US interventions from 1945 to 1999 suggests the US has historically not been all that reluctant to covertly or openly act militarily. But, Obama is correct: the US has played a “unique role” when it comes to global security and advocating human freedom.

First off, the speech made it clear that a goal of the intervention is to remove Gaddafi from power (initially, that was unclear in the US). As forces close in on Gaddafi, a concern must be that Gaddafi could fear that it is over and take some sort of action that Western powers only thought he would take if they didn’t get involved. Gaddafi has precursor materials for chemical weapons. How he might use those materials and whether they can be weaponized should be paid attention.

Also, the speech indicated Gaddafi’s $33 billion in frozen assets is money that will be used to “rebuild Libya.” The word “rebuild” does not and will not have the same meaning to Western powers as it does to the “rebels.” So, how might Libya be rebuilt? What might countries, which have invested military and security resources into Libya right now, like to get out of Libya in the aftermath of the intervention?

In the case of the US, US State Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks illuminate what those in the Washington establishment might like to see happen.

A cable titled, “Through A Glass, Darkly: GOL Reaches Out To The New Administration As Best It Can,” details some of the problems businesses or trade officials have experienced:

…GOL also recently resurrected its periodic campaign to prevent Emboffs from reaching out directly to GOL entities and, in some cases, quasi-governmental organizations. Meetings with the Ministry of Economy and Trade, the National Oil Corporation and the quasi-governmental Qadhafi Development Foundation were cancelled at the last minute because they had not been coordinated with the MFA-equivalent via diplomatic note. In addition, a well-informed U.S. business person working with the General National Maritime and Transportation Company (GNMTC) on possible deals for port security equipment suggested that the company be in touch with the Embassy regarding related bilateral training and engagement. Our contact received a message from Hannibal al-Qadhafi, head of the GNMTC, through a senior aide (who read from notes he said had been handwritten by Hannibal) on February 1 that dealing with the U.S. was still viewed as "extremely sensitive", that the GNMTC would rather pay private consultants than obtain assistance gratis from the USG and that she should minimize her meetings with Emboffs to avoid creating the "wrong impression” among GOL officials. Finally, the NOC renewed its campaign to solicit contributions to the U.S.-Libya comprehensive claims settlement fund, telling international oil company representatives at a meeting on February 1 that they "must contribute" to the fund by February 28 or would suffer "serious consequences" (ref F).

The US managed to overcome the claims settlement issue (to read about that, click here), but there is still much room for expansion of trade into Libya. The possibility of oil companies expanding operations is a very real prospect, as detailed in this cable on former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Libya:

ENERGY SECTOR & COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITIES ¶10. (C) Libya's economy is almost entirely dependent on oil and gas. Libya has the largest proven oil reserves (43.6 billion barrels) and the third largest proven natural gas reserves (1.5 billion cubic meters) on the African continent. Libya currently produces about 1.7 million barrels/day of oil; only Angola and Nigeria produce more in Africa. Oil and gas infrastructure suffered during the sanctions period. The lifting of sanctions has opened the way for new exploration and improved production. New technology and refined management techniques introduced by international oil companies (IOC's) are a key part of Libya's plan to increase oil production to 3.0 million barrels/day by 2013. Most of Libya's oil and natural gas are exported to Europe - Italy, Germany, Spain and France are key customers. Major U.S. energy companies active in Libya include Amerada Hess, ConocoPhillips, Marathon, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Occidental. Joint ventures involving U.S. companies currently account for about 510,000 barrels/day of Libya's 1.7 million barrels/day production. A large number of small to mid-sized U.S. oil and gas services companies are also working in Libya.

After years of isolation under sanctions and limited spending by the GOL, Libya is currently in the midst of an economic boom, partly driven by a desire to complete large-scale infrastructure projects as tangible symbols of the regime's achievements in advance of the 40th anniversary of al-Qadhafi's revolution on September 1, 2009. High oil prices have helped fuel the outlays. Western companies, eager to establish a position in what is expected to be a lucrative market, are arriving in sizeable numbers. A temporary pause prompted by adoption of the Lautenberg Amendment in January 2008 and concern about asset seizure is coming to an end on news of the comprehensive claims agreement. XXXXXXXXXXXX Despite great promise, Libya remains a challenging business and investment environment. Contradictory regulations, inefficient government bureaucracy, limited human capacity and rampant corruption (in 2007, Transparency International ranked Libya 133rd out of 180 countries in terms of being most corrupt) are significant challenges that could hamper greater investment.

Moreover, Libya presents the US with an opportunity to expand the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). AFRICOM has taken charge of US involvement in operations underway in Libya. John CK Daly for ISN Insights writes, “The current intervention underway in Libya is the inaugural combat mission for the US military's AFRICOM.” It is likely to, in the end, affirm skeptic assertions that AFRICOM is not so much about bringing “peace and security to the people of Africa” and more about controlling Africa’s vast resources and “offsetting China’s expansive investment in the continent.”

Up to this point, Libya has not been subordinated to AFRICOM. But, that may change as this intervention presents opportunities to expand counterterrorism efforts, military-to-military cooperation, regional stability in greater Africa, along with trade and investment.

Unlike the Bush Administration's wars launched in Afghanistan and Iraq, this intervention appeared to begin with more multilateral support than wars the US has been involved in have, in recent history, enjoyed.

Whether President Obama successfully sold the war to Americans Monday night or not is largely irrelevant (Americans like war and will eventually excuse whatever they don’t like about this intervention and "support the troops"). What is more important is war was not declared properly; the US Congress did not sign off on this war in the way it is constitutionally expected to do. President Obama launched this war with support from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, even though the Pentagon was reluctant to get involved.

Essentially, it seems the Obama Administration did not want to see European Union countries and possibly countries in the Arab League launch an intervention that the US was not involved in leading. The Obama Administration engaged in a process that produced a UN Security Council resolution, which has given cover to military action in Libya. The current intervention is the inverse of counterinsurgency operations the US is used to mounting in the global war on terror. In this case, US forces are helping the insurgents.

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