Libya and Iraq: Mirror Images in the Grip of Big Oil

The U.N. Security Council’s mandate, which authorized NATO’s military operations to “protect civilians” in Libya, was just as specious as the one that allowed the Bush administration to invade Iraq to destroy stockpiles of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Just as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were focused on securing Iraq’s oil for their Big Oil cronies, U.S. and NATO forces attacked Libya to take out Muammar Gaddafi, who preferred to sell his oil to Russia and China.

Saddam Hussein went into hiding after Baghdad fell and was subsequently looted. His capture and eventual execution came many months later. In the immediate aftermath of Gaddafi’s fall, amid all of the chaos, the only clear move was made by Tripoli to favor NATO allies as the new customers for Libyan oil.

Today, NATO gloats of “no collateral damage” in its Libyan operations. Yet, an estimated 10,000 mostly civilians it meant to protect are dead, while entire cities lie in ruin.

After nine years of U.S. occupation, Iraq’s economy remains in shambles amid rampant official corruption, with every sign of greater instability when the last of the U.S. troops are gone. Libya will likely remain a near-failed state for the foreseeable future as competing political and tribal forces fight for ascendancy.

Big Oil is in no hurry to see those two countries, or other oil-producing nations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), become stable, prosperous and productive. In fact, the more they remain mired in misery the easier it will be to exact from them better oil concessions. Sudan is spared the “Arab Spring” treatment simply because that country is sufficiently corrupt and dysfunctional to be putty in the Big Oil’s hands.

America currently imports the largest portion of its oil from Canada’s ecologically disastrous shale oil extractions. Massive MENA oil reserves are earmarked for long-term exploitation when this and similar sources reach depletion.

The United States and its European allies have removed such despots as Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, while clamoring for the leaders of Syria and Yemen to step down under the spurious “Arab Spring” banner. Yet they have no fear that MENA nation states, in the wake of dictatorial rules, would become sufficiently strong to control their own oil reserves and to pose a serious threat to America’s regional hegemony.

The Pentagon’s planners know very well that after many decades of abject dictatorship, in lands long beset by tribal, ethnic and sectarian rivalries, the preconditions for strong civil societies are dim at best. The idea of a Marshall Plan for MENA has been toyed with, mainly to deflect from real regional intentions. Yet even a sincere rescue package is bound to fail.

The United States initiated the Marshall Plan in 1947, infusing a war-ravaged Western Europe with more than $12 billion (about $107 billion today). As late as 1964, a German confided in the Polish writer Wiltold Gombrowicz, “We needed America so badly after the debacle . . . and its spirit even more than its military force and dollars. America slid over us like a steamroller, leveling, democratizing, simplifying.”

East Europeans were less receptive of the “velvet revolution”—presumably the model for the “Arab Spring”—which ensued after Mikhail Gorbachev as the last Soviet leader and President Ronald Reagan agreed on a geopolitical blueprint to replace the Soviet Union and its satellite nations. Yet after faltering starts, Europeans who had long suffered under communism, proved sufficiently educated, skilled and foresighted to embrace their emancipation.

MENA, however, largely lacks both German clarity and Eastern Europe’s enlightened receptivity. Tunisia, which held successful elections over the weekend, is small, geopolitically insignificant and holds negligible oil reserves. It may be just lucky enough to support a nascent civil society. Achieving the same will be appreciably more difficult in larger North African countries and harder still in the Middle East.

While autocrats have fallen in the African countries of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, despots in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain have proven more resilient, partly due to a growing sense in the immediate region that years of sanctions, followed by “liberation,” have inflicted far more damage on the lives of Iraqis than Hussein’s years of tyranny ever did.

Bombs a spring do not make, nor will civil societies flourish from the arid soil of hatred, ignorance and poverty.

It is up to the people in the region to realize that they have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This is not going to be easy for nations long under the thumb of dictators, torn by internal divisiveness and haunted by the long shadow of colonialism.