Aug 1 2011

Libyan War Not About Oil-Unless It Should Be

Moammar Gadhafi--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/BRQ Network/AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Moammar Gadhafi–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/BRQ Network/AP Photo/Ben Curtis

That Libya has oil is not lost on the media; network newscasts occasionally mentioned oil in the context of the war. But it often came up as as by-product of some consumer concern: “Oil and gas prices are on the rise this morning. Military action in Libya pushed crude prices up more than $2 today to $103 per barrel, due to concerns over possible supply disruptions” (ABC‘s Good Morning America, 3/21/11). It would be difficult not to notice that NATO’s direct military intervention in a pro-democracy uprising just so happened to take place in a country with massive oil reserves.

There is, as one might expect, more to be said about oil and Libya–a familiar tension between major oil companies and an oil-rich nation. In 2004, after Gadhafi abandoned his nuclear program, George W. Bush lifted longtime sanctions. ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil jumped in, investing about $700 million apiece over the course of six years, alongside other more cautious investors such as Exxon and Chevron (Washington Post, 6/11/11). An array of corporations like Chevron and Halliburton were all lobbying the federal government on Libya policy (USA Today, 3/10/11); their concerns were not likely of a humanitarian nature.

Initially, Gadhafi appeared eager to work with foreign oil companies. But as an exceptional Washington Post story (6/11/11) pointed out, as early as 2006 he was making speeches about nationalizing Libya’s oil industry and demanding that Libyans be employed in management positions. The Wall Street Journal (4/15/11) reported oil companies’ complaints about Libya’s “crushing bureaucracy” and political interference with profits. The Post quoted a WikiLeaks State Department cable that warned of “growing evidence of Libyan resource nationalism.”

Of the end game, the Post quoted Nansen Saleri, an oil industry consultant, saying: “Now you can figure out who’s going to win, and the name is not Gadhafi. Certain things about the mosaic are taking shape. The Western companies are positioning themselves.”

It might be a stretch to argue that the Libya War is primarily being waged over control of the country’s energy resources. Other strategic considerations might have also played a role, such as the U.S. desire to find a friendly host country for an AFRICOM military base (Institute for Public Accuracy, 3/24/11) and Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian energy (McClatchy, 7/1/11). But it’s doubtful that Libya’s vast oil reserves did not enter into foreign policy calculations–making oil’s near-absence from the media discussion rather peculiar, if not surprising.

There are places where more straightforward comments about the role of oil are occasionally aired–often by conservatives. CNN‘s Jack Cafferty (6/20/11), for instance, remarked that while human rights were one consideration, “on the other hand, one of the reasons there’s so much interest is the oil. And the people who buy most of the oil in Libya are the French and other European nations.”

Given its political slant, it is hardly shocking to find discussions which cast doubt on the humanitarian intentions of a Democratic president’s war on Fox News Channel. As Fox‘s Neil Cavuto remarked to Ron Paul (3/8/11): “It always comes back to–and you’re a Texan–to oil, right? And we need this region, so we have to be heavily invested in the region.”

Even Fox, though, does not seriously question the premise that the war is humanitarian, or that invading countries for oil is a legitimate interest of the United States government. Fox pundit Monica Crowley neatly summarized the case (3/3/11): “Libya is an interest strategically to the United States,” Crowley said. “We now have a moral interest because there’s a humanitarian crisis and a slaughter going on in the ground. And we have a very significant economic interest here because this is a big oil producer.”