Those questions recur every time American military might is brought to bear upon the Middle East. They are being asked again now that Libya is back on Uncle Sam’s honey-do list.
The country called Libya has been conquered by all your favorite superpowers at one time or another; Carthage in the 6th Century BC, Greece in the 4th BC, Rome in the 1st, the Arabs in the 7th Century AD, Italy in the 20th.
Well, they can’t all be superpowers.
After World War II, England and France took it over, then Libya became an independent monarchy in 1951. The USA got a taste in 1956 when two American petroleum companies gained access to 14 million acres of oil-bearing Libyan acreage. In just five years, a 104 mile-long pipeline had been built to the Mediterranean Sea so all that crude the companies were pumping out of the ground would have somewhere to go.
Not everyone was keen on the new Libyan capitalism. In 1969, an ambitious army colonel named Gaddafi or Kaddafi or Qadafi overthrew the king and installed himself as top kick. One of his first moves was to nationalize the oil industry.
Gaddafi resented the triumph of Israel in 1967’s Six Day War and was a passionate advocate of bringing all the Arab nations together. However, the other Arab nations weren’t all that keen about hooking up with him. At various times, Gaddafi sought to merge Libya with Egypt, Syria and Tunisia, but in every instance the plans fell through. Finally, Gaddafi decided simply to re-brand his country, changing its name from the Libyan Arab Republic to the much more memorable Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah.
Throughout his reign, Gaddafi vacillated between amusing eccentricity and full-on, screaming-monkeys-in-the-skull insanity. His sponsorship of terrorism certainly did not fall in the former category. Libyans have been involved in many plots and much carnage internationally, but their highest-profile terrorist act was the bombing of a Pan Am jet over the United Kingdom in 1988. That was only two years after Gaddafi’s adopted daughter was reportedly killed in a US bombing raid of Tripoli in response to a Libyan bomb attack in Berlin.
Suffice to say, Gaddafi’s was a pariah nation. Then, the colonel did something else crazy. In January, 2002, Libya and the US tentatively resumed communications—we had cut Gaddafi off diplomatically in 1984—and began a dialogue on improving relations. In short order, Libya abandoned plans to build weapons of mass destruction, took responsibility for the Lockerbie plane bombing and agreed to compensate the victims.
Then in 2005, United States oil companies were allowed back into Libya for the country’s first auction of oil and gas leases. The more things change…
Maybe this week’s crisis isn’t about oil. Certainly the aging colonel has attacked those of his countrymen with the temerity to oppose him. Yet, doesn’t it seem odd that right down the road in Bahrain, King Hamad’s troops have been gunning down protesting citizens, yet we’ve made no move to establish a no-fly zone there or demand his ouster? Over in Yemen, President Saleh’s goons killed 40 demonstrators last week. Can the West not spare a cruise missile for his residence?
Maybe this week’s crisis isn’t about oil, but as long as Libya’s crude production is down 75% and the price of a barrel soars toward $120, the American economy is going to be adversely affected. High gas prices are like kryptonite for an economic recovery, especially one as tentative as we are experiencing now. The insidious math works out thusly: divide $600,000 per cruise missile launched by the number of days until the 2012 election and suddenly a politician is looking at an affordable risk if it means re-establishing a stable, gushing Libya.
Unfortunately, we don’t know if that’s what it means. Our leaders probably don’t know either.
When Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was deposed by a popular uprising, US diplomats had to scramble because intelligence on the ground there gave no clue that this was coming. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, said, “I don’t think anyone, even in Egypt, knew it would happen when it did.”
That was in a country where we have friends. In Libya, where Gaddafi has maintained for 40 years that America is the devil, it is safe to assume we have even fewer sources of credible intelligence. We are in no position to engineer regime change there because we have no regime with which to replace the crazy colonel.
Gaddafi promises a long war, but in reality he hasn’t the resources. Whatever the Libyan equivalent of Bucks Pocket is, he’ll be there soon. Whereas Egypt had a mechanism for succession, Libya has none. The empty governing space Gaddafi leaves behind will of necessity be filled by the United States, just as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. The next Libyan government will not be constituted of the rebels who toppled the colonel, but of opportunistic politicians who know how to speak American.
Meanwhile, back in D.C., President Obama has followed in the path of President Bush who followed in the path of President Clinton who followed in the path of President Bush. Once again, war has not been declared, but our troops and materiel have been sent into harm’s way for an open-ended, ill-defined mission. The difference this time is that the same GOP lawmakers who cheered lustily for such an adventure in Iraq are booing because it’s not their Commander-in-Chief running the show.
It would be easier to have faith in our leaders if we thought they had any faith in us, but the manner in which we receive less transparency, rather than more, about the actions they take in our name suggests they probably have none whatsoever.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.