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The Great Libyan Distraction

Immanuel Wallerstein, Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University
The entire Libyan conflict of the last month – the civil war in Libya, the U.S.-led military action against Gaddafi – is neither about humanitarian intervention nor about the immediate supply of world oil. It is in fact one big distraction – a deliberate distraction – from the principal political struggle in the Arab world. There is one thing on which Gaddafi and Western leaders of all political views are in total accord. They all want to slow down, channel, co-opt, limit the second Arab revolt and prevent it from changing the basic political realities of the Arab world and its role in the geopolitics of the world-system.

To appreciate this, one has to follow what has been happening in chronological sequence. Although political rumblings in the various Arab states and the attempts by various outside forces to support one or another element within various states have been a constant for a long time, the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi on Dec. 17, 2010 launched a very different process.

It was in my view the continuation of the spirit of the world revolution of 1968. In 1968, as in the last few months in the Arab world, the group that had the courage and the will to launch the protest against instituted authority were young people.
(1 April 2011)

Noam Chomsky: On Libya and the Unfolding Crises

Noam Chomsky, Stephen Shalom and Michael Albert; ZNet
… What then are U.S. motives? At a very general level, the evidence seems to me to show that they have not changed much since the high-level planning studies undertaken during World War II. Wartime planners took for granted that the US would emerge from the war in a position of overwhelming dominance, and called for the establishment of a Grand Area in which the US would maintain “unquestioned power,” with “military and economic supremacy,” while ensuring the “limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with its global designs. …

With regard to the Middle East – the “most strategically important region of the world,” in Eisenhower’s phrase — the primary concern has been, and remains, its incomparable energy reserves. Control of these would yield “substantial control of the world,” as observed early on by the influential liberal adviser A.A. Berle. These concerns are rarely far in the background in affairs concerning this region. …

While control over oil is not the sole factor in Middle East policy, it provides fairly good guidelines, right now as well. In an oil-rich country, a reliable dictator is granted virtual free rein. In recent weeks, for example, there was no reaction when the Saudi dictatorship used massive force to prevent any sign of protest. Same in Kuwait, when small demonstrations were instantly crushed. And in Bahrain, when Saudi-led forces intervened to protect the minority Sunni monarch from calls for reform on the part of the repressed Shiite population. Government forces not only smashed the tent city in Pearl Square – Bahrain’s Tahrir Square — but even demolished the Pearl statue that was Bahrain’s symbol, and had been appropriated by the protestors. Bahrain is a particularly sensitive case because it hosts the US Fifth fleet, by far the most powerful military force in the region, and because eastern Saudi Arabia, right across the causeway, is also largely Shiite, and has most of the Kingdom’s oil reserves. By a curious accident of geography and history, the world’s largest hydrocarbon concentrations surround the northern Gulf, in mostly Shiite regions. The possibility of a tacit Shiite alliance has been a nightmare for planners for a long time.

In states lacking major hydrocarbon reserves, tactics vary, typically keeping to a standard game plan when a favored dictator is in trouble: support him as long as possible, and when that cannot be done, issue ringing declarations of love of democracy and human rights — and then try to salvage as much of the regime as possible.

The scenario is boringly familiar: Marcos, Duvalier, Chun, Ceasescu, Mobutu, Suharto, and many others. And today, Tunisia and Egypt. Syria is a tough nut to crack and there is no clear alternative to the dictatorship that would support U.S. goals. Yemen is a morass where direct intervention would probably create even greater problems for Washington. So there state violence elicits only pious declarations.

Libya is a different case. Libya is rich in oil, and though the US and UK have often given quite remarkable support to its cruel dictator, right to the present, he is not reliable. They would much prefer a more obedient client. Furthermore, the vast territory of Libya is mostly unexplored, and oil specialists believe it may have rich untapped resources, which a more dependable government might open to Western exploitation.

When a non-violent uprising began, Qaddafi crushed it violently, and a rebellion broke out that liberated Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, and seemed about to move on to Qaddafi’s stronghold in the West. His forces, however, reversed the course of the conflict and were at the gates of Benghazi. A slaughter in Benghazi was likely, and as Obama’s Middle East adviser Dennis Ross pointed out, “everyone would blame us for it.”

… It is of course uncertain, but the likely prospects now (March 29) are either a break-up of Libya into an oil-rich Eastern region heavily dependent on the Western imperial powers and an impoverished West under the control of a brutal tyrant with fading capacity, or a victory by the Western-backed forces. In either case, so the triumvirate presumably hopes, a less troublesome and more dependent regime will be in place. The likely outcome is described fairly accurately, I think by the London-based Arab journal al-Quds al-Arabi (March 28). While recognizing the uncertainty of prediction, it anticipates that the intervention may leave Libya with “two states, a rebel-held oil-rich East and a poverty-stricken, Qadhafi-led West… Given that the oil wells have been secured, we may find ourselves facing a new Libyan oil emirate, sparsely inhabited, protected by the West and very similar to the Gulf’s emirate states.” Or the Western-backed rebellion might proceed all the way to eliminate the irritating dictator.
(31 March 2011)

Barack Obama’s Libya Speech and the Tasks of Anti-Imperialists

Gilbert Achcar, ZNet
The speech delivered by Barack Obama on March 28 sheds interesting light on both the ongoing Western intervention in Libya and the debate that has been unfolding in the antiwar movement about it. What follows is a dissection of key sections of the speech …

The key point here was neither “values” nor “conscience” as such, but the fact that the “stained conscience” of the Western powers, had they remained inactive, would have compelled them to embargo Libya at a time when the oil market was so stressed that this would have driven oil prices to a still higher level than their already high level prior to the Libyan crisis, with calamitous consequences for the global economy. This is why, as Obama put it: “It was not in our national interest to let that happen.”

“I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973. We struck regime forces approaching Benghazi to save that city and the people within it. We hit Gaddafi’s troops in neighboring Ajdabiya, allowing the opposition to drive them out. We hit his air defenses, which paved the way for a No Fly Zone. We targeted tanks and military assets that had been choking off towns and cities and we cut off much of their source of supply. And tonight, I can report that we have stopped Gaddafi’s deadly advance.”

This is a basically accurate description of what happened, along with the inevitable killing of civilians by coalition bombings, which, to be fair, has been relatively limited until now in the intervention in Libya compared to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, the spectacle of Western planes and missiles pounding Gaddafi’s positions in Libya aroused legitimate emotion, and could not but evoke the spectacle of purely imperialist aggressions like the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But there was no way of stopping Gaddafi from committing his foretold massacre without enforcing a no-fly zone and halting the movement of his armored vehicles toward the populated zones held by the uprising. We could not support Western strikes due to our total lack of confidence in the heavy-handed approach of the Pentagon and its allies, and our certainty from past experiences that they would overstep the UN mandate of protecting the civilians. But neither could we oppose the no-fly zone and initial bombing of Gaddafi’s armor that were insistently requested by the uprising for its rescue from Gaddafi’s murderous vengeance.

“”A massacre would have [put] enormous strains on the peaceful — yet fragile — transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.”

For once, Obama is right against some writers on the left who claimed that the Western intervention in Libya was designed to halt — and would halt — the wave of democratic uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. On the contrary, had Gaddafi been able to crush the Libyan uprising in a bloodbath, this would have dramatically affected the situation, boosted the regional counter-revolution and deterred the protest movement from carrying on its fight in most countries. The fact that the massacre was averted and the uprising resumed its offensive in Libya further emboldened the regional revolutionary process. Since then not only did the movement gather momentum where it existed, in countries like Morocco and Yemen, but it spread and amplified in Syria, the only major country in the region where protest had been very weak hitherto.
Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.
(31 March 2011)

Libya is another case of selective vigilantism by the west

Tariq Ali, Guardian/UK
The US-Nato intervention in Libya, with United Nations security council cover, is part of an orchestrated response to show support for the movement against one dictator in particular and by so doing to bring the Arab rebellions to an end by asserting western control, confiscating their impetus and spontaneity and trying to restore the status quo ante.

It is absurd to think that the reasons for bombing Tripoli or for the turkey shoot outside Benghazi are designed to protect civilians. This particular argument is designed to win support from the citizens of Euro-America and part of the Arab world. “Look at us,” say Obama/Clinton and the EU satraps, “we’re doing good. We’re on the side of the people.” The sheer cynicism is breathtaking.

… The frontiers of the squalid protectorate that the west is going to create are being decided in Washington. Even those Libyans who, out of desperation, are backing Nato’s bomber jets, might – like their Iraqi equivalents – regret their choice.

All this might trigger a third phase at some stage: a growing nationalist anger that spills over into Saudi Arabia and here, have no doubt, Washington will do everything necessary to keep the Saudi royal family in power. Lose Saudi Arabia and they will lose the Gulf states. The assault on Libya, greatly helped by Gaddafi’s imbecility on every front, was designed to wrest the initiative back from the streets by appearing as the defenders of civil rights.
(29 March 2011)

Hugs From Libyans

Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times
This may be a first for the Arab world: An American airman who bailed out over Libya was rescued from his hiding place in a sheep pen by villagers who hugged him, served him juice and thanked him effusively for bombing their country.

Even though some villagers were hit by American shrapnel, one gamely told an Associated Press reporter that he bore no grudges. Then, on Wednesday in Benghazi, the major city in eastern Libya whose streets would almost certainly be running with blood now if it weren’t for the American-led military intervention, residents held a “thank you rally.” They wanted to express gratitude to coalition forces for helping save their lives.

Doubts are reverberating across America about the military intervention in Libya. Those questions are legitimate, and the uncertainties are huge. But let’s not forget that a humanitarian catastrophe has been averted for now and that this intervention looks much less like the 2003 invasion of Iraq than the successful 1991 gulf war to rescue Kuwait from Iraqi military occupation.
(23 March 2011)

The shape of Libya’s ‘better future’ remains elusive

Simon Tisdall, Guardian
It seems odd to be making decisions about a country’s future without the involvement of its current government, however despised that government may be. But the Libya crisis is packed full of such anachronisms. It’s a war of choice – except officially, according to the US and Nato, it’s an internal conflict. It’s about protecting civilians, says the UN, except the heavily armed “civilians” of Benghazi and eastern Libya are now marching on Tripoli. In theory it’s not about dethroning Gaddafi – but in reality it most certainly is.

Tomorrow’s one-day international conference in London, dedicated to “a better future for the people of Libya”, is a heavyweight affair. David Cameron’s guest list includes Hillary Clinton, leaders of the UN, Arab League and African Union, about 35 foreign ministers – and the rebels’ transitional council. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s long-time ruler, and his representatives are not invited. This is because Gaddafi’s rule has been deemed “wholly illegitimate” by western leaders – another legal and political oddity.

A principal reason for this five-star turnout is a four-letter word hovering like a dread spectre over the whole Libyan enterprise: Iraq.

… Another, more likely, scenario – that Gaddafi is toppled by his own people – raised a host of other unknowns, said Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute.

… Eyal said he did not believe a post-Gaddafi Libya would split apart or descend into internecine warfare. But it would present costly, long-term security, humanitarian and diplomatic challenges for which western countries were probably unprepared. “A new Libyan government cannot be a centralised authority, power will have to be more devolved. It will be a more disjointed country altogether. And whatever happens, there will have to be a redistribution of oil revenues between east and west” – which might be a shock to western oil companies.
(28 March 2011)

An Open Letter to the Left on Libya

Juan Cole, Informed Comment
… am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed. I can still remember when I was a teenager how disappointed I was that Soviet tanks were allowed to put down the Prague Spring and extirpate socialism with a human face. Our multilateral world has more spaces in it for successful change and defiance of totalitarianism than did the old bipolar world of the Cold War, where the US and the USSR often deferred to each other’s sphere of influence.

The United Nations-authorized intervention in Libya has pitched ethical issues of the highest importance, and has split progressives in unfortunate ways. I hope we can have a calm and civilized discussion of the rights and wrongs here.

On the surface, the situation in Libya a week and a half ago posed a contradiction between two key principles of Left politics: supporting the ordinary people and opposing foreign domination of them. Libya’s workers and townspeople had risen up to overthrow the dictator in city after city– Tobruk, Dirna, al-Bayda, Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Misrata, Zawiya, Zuara, Zintan. Even in the capital of Tripoli, working-class neighborhoods such as Suq al-Jumah and Tajoura had chased out the secret police. In the two weeks after February 17, there was little or no sign of the protesters being armed or engaging in violence.

The libel put out by the dictator, that the 570,000 people of Misrata or the 700,000 people of Benghazi were supporters of “al-Qaeda,” was without foundation. That a handful of young Libyan men from Dirna and the surrounding area had fought in Iraq is simply irrelevant.
(27 March 2011)

After unscripted Arab drama, the west sneaks back on set

Soumaya Ghannoushi, Guardian/UK
Arab dictators were not the only ones to have been taken aback by the scale and speed of events in the region. Their allies were also caught off guard. The changes were simply “too much, too fast”, as a stunned US official put it. From being the sole actors and directors on the stage, Europe and the US, along with the various despots, found themselves suddenly reduced to mere spectators, and fearful of the future.

Perhaps it is not surprising that those who had long been used to dictating the course of events there would not simply accept a new script written by millions of ordinary people. After the revolution’s resounding successes in Tunisia and Egypt, the old players soon found new ways of sneaking back on to the set.

Muammar Gaddafi’s model of the iron-fisted ruler who fights to the last drop emboldened some dictators. While Tunisia and Egypt presented Arabs with an inspiring model of change at minimal cost, Libya stirred hopes among their rulers that they might cling on to power through naked violence and the threat of civil war.
(31 March 2011)

Intervention in Libya: Is It Really the Only Option?

Stephen Zunes, Truth-Out
The decision by the United States and its Western allies to intervene militarily against the Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi may have averted a massacre, but it is fraught with serious risks of eventually costing even more lives. Furthermore, it could undermine the remarkable and overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy movements which have been sweeping the Arab world in recent months. As will be described below, had Libya’s popular uprising maintained its largely nonviolent discipline of its early days, there probably would not be the bloody stalemate and other dangers now emerging in the conflict.

… This underscores that just because the incumbent regime may be evil and resistance to the regime is just, its replacement could end up being worse, a possibility greatly enhanced if power is seized through force of arms. For example, one could certainly make an argument that the mujahidin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s also had a just cause and that the civilian population of that country also needed to be defended from the threat of serious war crimes. However, 80 percent of the billions of dollars of US aid money sent to help the Afghan “freedom fighters” ended up in the hands of Hezb-i-Islami, an extremist minority faction, which slaughtered many thousands of Afghan civilians and is currently allied with the Taliban and attacking US forces.

How to Undermine Qaddafi

As mercurial and repressive as Qaddafi is, he still has a social base. It is not just foreign mercenaries that are keeping him in power. In his 41 years as ruler, he wrested the country away from neo-colonial domination, instilled a sense of national pride and – despite his mismanagement and capricious policies – led his country to achieve the highest Human Development Index ranking in Africa, surpassing scores of relatively wealthy non-African countries as Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia and Russia. There are many Libyans who, while unhappy with Qaddafi’s rule, are not ready to support the opposition.

For a revolution against a heavily armed and deeply entrenched dictator to succeed, the opposition movement needs to mobilize a large percentage of the population on their side, as took place in Tunisia and Egypt. Libyans need to engage in strategies that will make the regime come across as illegitimate and a traitorous, while making themselves look virtuous and patriotic.
(28 March 2011)