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Libya: Will Air War Become an Occupation?

Just a few of the U.S. military bases encircling Iran.


Libya: Will Air War Become an Occupation?

Just a few of the U.S. military bases encircling Iran.

Invasion of Iran on Hold

Several years ago, looking at the alignment of forces in the world – and the continued exaggerated role of the neo-conservatives in US foreign policy combined with Netanyahu's obsession with 'taking out' of Teheran – I feared a US led military offensive against Iran was in the making, and predicted as much on several occasions.

At times the past few years the rhetoric became more heated, the US naval presence in the Gulf increased and the political deadlock over Iran's nuclear program seemed to all converge towards war. To the above, add the near open admission of US Special Forces missions in Iran and funding of the Iran opposition. Bring them all together with the usual pre-war vilification (part merited, part not) of the Iranian domestic situation and there isn't much of a conceptual jump to war. The Iranian government's crushing the Iranian reform movement of 2009 – a prelude to the 2010-2011 Arab Revolt – only made matters worse, weakening domestic US opposition here to military action.

It is impossible to predict the results of a US-led attack on Iran, but the indications are that it would not be a cake walk. To the contrary:

1. It would probably further strengthen the authority and position of the mullahs, uniting the Iranian nation against the outside aggressor (as the threats have already done) and weakening the democratic movement in the country considerably.

2. There is nothing to indicate that invading Iran – whatever shape the military action might take – would result in the collapse of the government there as it did in Iraq in 2003. Without overstating the case – the 2009 protests revealed deep fissures within the country – still, the current government in Iran has considerable mass support. It is easy to forget one of the worst wars of the 20th century – the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988 when Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and the like argued that supporting Iraq would result in the collapse of the Iranian regime. Didn't happen then; won't now either.

3. If war did break out, it would probably not be as one-sided as the US-led 2003 Iraq invasion where the Iraqi military all but collapsed. Iran is in a position to hurt the US and its closest allies in the region militarily and politically. A 'shock and awe' type military offensive would cause great suffering in the country, but it is doubtful such a campaign would either bring down the regime, or for that matter, eliminate its potential to strike back militarily and politically.

4. Although rarely discussed, the US actually needs (and cooperates with) Iran for stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Any US military operation against Iran would seriously undermine the US position, already quite tenuous, in these two countries. The US military is obviously much stronger, but in any war, you can expect that there will be serious US casualties with the naval fleet in the Gulf being essentially sitting ducks. Then there are the Saudi (and Kuwaiti and Emirates) oil fields. One has to be either pretty stupid or blinded by arrogance to believe the strategic resources the US military is in the Middle East to protect, would not be hit in the event of war.

Once again, it is that latter-day global muckraker, Seymour Hersh, in another one of his pathbreaking articles in The New Yorker that helps clear the air about Iran, both in clearly denying that Iran's nuclear program is about building weapons and also in explaining why the United States did not, in the end, invade Iran. It is not so much that Hersh's reasons are new, it is more that he has documented what US peace activists have been arguing for years.

Among the reasons:

a. Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. This has been the case since 2003 and very possibly the Iranian nuclear program was never about developing weapons' grade uranium.

b. That the United States is already militarily overextended. Hersh argues that both in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite Administration claims to the contrary, the two wars are not going well. There is also stepped-up US military activity in Somalia and Yemen.

c. There would be quite active opposition to a US-led military intervention in Iran from Russia, China (perhaps predictably) but also from India and Japan, which get oil from Iran.

d. A military intervention in Iran would more than likely seriously disrupt world oil supplies resulting in unacceptable complications to the broader world economy. To think otherwise is to be somewhat out of sync with reality.

Whatever, all these considerations became all that much more relevant with the advent of the Arab Revolt which spread through the region and through US policy into something approaching complete disarray (at least temporarily). Washington had come to believe its own rhetoric. It was counting on a radical Islamic fundamentalist thrust which nowhere in the region played a critical role but instead a youth-secular driven movement for greater democracy and a more generalized prosperity.

With the US trying to 'manage' the political changes in Tunisia and Egypt, to eliminate long-term political adversaries in Libya and Syria, and to protect and defend at all costs its allies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, the plans for military intervention against Iran have been put on the back burner.

Besides, as Hersh points out, even before Tunisian youth, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself and the whole region on fire, the Obama Administration was already seriously divided over whether to attack militarily. According to Hersh – usually an accurate source – retiring Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates was opposed as are much of the leadership of the US high command.

At the least, the Arab Revolt has bought Iran time, and the more time it has to prepare, the more its ability to both defend itself in case of attack, and to hurt its adversaries militarily as well. The revolt throughout the Arab World has also, to a certain extent, undermined the myth of the Iranian threat. It turns out that Iran is much less of a threat to its Arab neighbors than the Arab governments themselves. The corruption, pervasive repressive practices and the vast economic and social inequities that have characterized the largely Western allies in the Arab World turned out to be a much more salient threat, than militant Iranian Shi'sm.

Increasing Prospects of Ground War in Libya and Syria

One invasion put on hold in order to prepare for another – or two others? More and more, the specter of US led ground wars in both Libya and Syria, possibly this fall, are coming into focus. Certainly some of the same themes that preceded the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq are coming into focus.

  • The internal contradictions in both countries – real as they are in both cases – are being exaggerated. True enough, neither Khadaffi nor Assad are innocent babes in the woods. Both regimes have used repression extensively to maintain their power base. But if both are admittedly authoritarian, their overall record (especially that of Libya) are not without economic and social accomplishments, now denied or trivialized.
  • Again as with Iraq in 2003, the United States, Great Britain, and France adamantly deny or downplay the strategic considerations that underlie the policy of 'regime change' (a euphemism for overthrowing governments) in Libya and Syria.

In Syria's case, it is not so much about oil as it is a chance for the US to eliminate the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean at Latakia. Furthermore, eliminating Assad and his coterie would weaken Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinian Movement and somewhat undermine Iran's position as well.

To eliminate Khadaffi's circle in Libya also has far reaching strategic consequences. It is rather amusing to see the arguments to the contrary being put forth (including by some liberal and left circles) minimizing or actually denying that oil is a factor in the current NATO military intervention in Libya. This line of thinking is such utter nonsense that it hardly deserves commentary (but, yes, I will do so all the same).

  • It is noticeable how little is made of the fact that 60% of Libya's oil goes to China. As in Sudan, where oil politics underline the political and ethnic considerations, oil and the wealth that comes from oil play big in the Libyan events.
  • In those areas controlled by the rebels, international oil companies have already moved in to get contracts at much cheaper rates than those negotiated by the Khadaffi government. We can expect, should Khadaffi's regime finally go the way of Saddam's, that a new Libyan government's oil policy would include a weakening of OPEC.
  • The British-French rush to war against Libya also has an energy connection. While it is not generally advertised, with the serious reduction of North Sea oil – overdeveloped with great encouragement by Margaret Thatcher – Britain finds itself in something of an energy crunch and is looking for more stable oil sources. It sees a great opportunity in overthrowing Khadaffi.
  • The French impetus is a little different but not much. The Fukushima nuclear accident – whose parameters appear to be much worse than publicized – has shaken a country where 80% of its power generation comes from nuclear energy. For France, 'diversifying' its energy sources means relying on more, rather than less, oil given its growing concerns of a Fukushima type accident.
  • To the degree it can increase its Middle East oil and gas sources, France can rely on Russian sources less. Limiting its dependence on Russian oil – with its political consequences – is a key factor (not the only one) explaining the current French military aggressiveness in Libya, of course under the cover of 'humanitarian' concerns and 'the values' of the French Revolution, values that were easily forgotten as France tortured and slaughtered a million Algeria between 1954 and 1962. Is it coincidence that a week after Khadaffi, in anger, claimed he would cancel his oil contracts with French and British oil companies, that both countries discovered Libya's humanitarian crisis?
  • In a more general sense a change in Libya shifts the balance of power in the region to the right at a time when the dramatic events of the past year are shifting the balance of power in the opposite direction.

It is true that Khadaffi himself opposed the changes in both Tunisia and Egypt, fearing that once his neighbors were overthrown, it would be more difficult for him to stay in power. He too preferred a status quo he was familiar with to changes the direction of which he could not predict. In Tunisia's case, there is some evidence that he (and his Algerian neighbors) would have liked to have stopped the Tunisian Revolution cold in its tracts. The speed of the challenges to his own power prevented him from moving effectively in this direction.

It is also the case that if in certain ways Khadaffi was a benevolent tyrant, that he is a tyrant who has always dealt with dissent harshly. In this sense he is hardly different from other regional authoritarians from Saudi Arabia to Algeria: to maintain power try to buy off the opposition first with economic and social programs. If that fails, crush the movement. In all cases, do what is necessary to maintain power.

Still, in his regional politics, Khadaffi has some genuine achievements, among them:

  • It was Libya's Kadhafi who put up some $300 million to fund the purchase of an African satellite, dramatically bringing down the cost of telephone, television, telemedicine and radio broadcasting throughout Africa. He did this while the World Bank and the IMF – and other western financial – institutions refused to back such projects.
  • Ironically the $30 billion of Libyan resources that Obama recently confiscated was not for Khadaffi's personal use, but was earmarked to fund the African Monetary Fund (AMF). The AMF was founded at the beginning of 2011 (just prior to the uprising in Libya) with an operating capital of $42 billion with headquarters in Yaoude. It would have funded an African currency that would have replaced the CFA Franc, and African financial dependence on the French monetary system. This fund also would have replaced the IMF and World Bank – with all their now well-known punitive conditions of structural adjustment – as a major funding source of African development
  • Khadaffi understood and opposed the European effort to break North Africa off from the rest of Africa economically through what is referred to as the Mediterranean dialogue. He understood that for the African Union to act independently, Africa had to be independently funded.
  • Khadaffi – agreed his foreign policy in record in Africa is quite mixed – still was one of the most ardent opponents of South African apartheid, a fact underlined by Nelson Mandela's insistence on visiting Libya despite a Western embargo. Mandela went anyway in gratitude for Libya's political and financial support for the African National Congress in the days before apartheid was overthrown.

Maybe, just maybe these points help explain why the NATO military intervention in Libya is unpopular in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World? And that while Khadaffi is admittedly no angel or great democrat at home, that he is respected in the Third World for good reason and that known Third World left leaders – Castro, Chavez, Nelson Mandela – and others are not abandoning him at present.

Obama: The US Is Bombing Libya But This Isn't War

The US Congress's informal protest over Obama's sidestepping the War Powers Act concerning US participation in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya included elements of the surreal. First, the president was charged with violating the law in what could be classified as an impeachable act; then in spite of this slap in the face, Congress, showing its more genuine colors, turned around and voted to approve the funding of the US military action in Libya for the next year, suggesting that when all is said and done, the protest vote didn't amount to much.

The Obama Administration's response to the criticism was, if one thinks about it, something approaching pathetic. No, the Administration need not get congressional approval, the argument went, because the United States does not have troops 'on the ground' and without troops on the ground, the United States is not at war with Libya. It appears that Congress lamely accepted this logic.

Actually we do not know that the United States does not have troops on the ground. Are the Special Forces, whose mission is secret, involved? Are there US military advisors there? But the bombing missions are not considered war. Al Qaeda did not have 'troops on the ground' when they sent hijacked civilian airliners careening into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which Congress labeled an act of war.

Using the cover of humanitarian interventionalism, – it seems to play well in Peoria – the United States has launched deadly airstrikes against the Libyan military; provided military aid to the Libyan rebels; pressed sanctions against Libya, froze its assets and called for the overthrow of Khadaffi. According to the Obama Administration and the president himself, these acts do not constitute 'war', thus the War Powers Act does not apply.

Looks like war. Tastes like war. Smells like war, but if Obama says it's not war, I guess it just can't be war.

But what if the United States and/or its NATO allies bring the air war down to the ground, and introduce ground troops? If they are American, will Obama seek the authorization as required under the War Powers Act, or when the time comes, will he seek another 'out' from Congressional scrutiny? Out of the question? Sending US ground troops to Libya is going beyond a line the Obama Administration will not cross? Will what begins as humanitarian interventionalism morph into permanent US/NATO military bases in Libya?

German, Russian Press Worried the US/NATO Planning to Send Ground Troops to Libya

Articles are beginning to appear in German and Russian press suggesting that there might be plans afoot for NATO, through various means, to introduce ground troops in the fall into both Libya and Syria (Syrian situation will be treated in a forthcoming piece) to accelerate the overthrow of Khadaffi in Libya and to 'support the process of reform' in Syria. Both US and NATO spokespeople deny these claims as do a number of Middle East experts asked to comment. Given recent history (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia), such denials should not be taken too seriously.

Still, the prospect of NATO ground troops in the Middle East cannot be written off so easily. Nor would it be especially surprising that the United States and its NATO allies would try to downplay or deny the allegations. The arguments against a more direct US led military intervention are weighty enough. The US is already overextended with its open military commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq; its less publicized activities in Yemen and Somalia. It cannot afford – either economically or politically – to open another military front at this time, especially with an upcoming presidential election. Recent surveys suggest that here in the United States, people are tiring of US foreign military intervention and their spiraling costs, rightly associating the money wasted on war with funds that could be better used here at home. True enough.

But there are counter arguments of what the United States could gain strategically from upping the ante and sending in ground troops to Libya. Those who write the possibility off as frivolous do so at their own risk. There are those within the Obama Administration who argue for a kind of Shock Doctrine approach to the current Arab Revolt, ie, to use the current crisis in the Middle East and North Africa to ultimately reshape and strengthen the US position in the region. The United States might have been caught unprepared for the uprising, but it is still possible to manage it and even for the US to come out 'ahead' strategically. The signs that more direct military intervention is at least on the drawing board are growing and with them, increased alarm in the international press.

Deutsche Welle ran a piece on June 27, 2011, 'Rumors For US Plans for Libya, Syria Cause Concern,' detailing the extent of the US naval build up in the Eastern Mediterranean and enhanced activity at Fort Hood, Texas where military preparations are allegedly gathering steam. The article also notes the changing nature of the NATO involvement, more 'mission leap' than mission creep.' An article in the Russian press on June 29, 2011, entitled 'Democracy By Order Of Washington,' doesn't give details but ends with a note of concern: “The next plan of the US is the redrawing of the maps of North Africa, the Middle and Near East. America is counting on the support of its most loyal allies.”

NATO's role has already morphed from securing a no-fly zone over Libyan air space – a somewhat defensive step to defend civilians – to the more offensive operations of targeting Khadaffi's forces, attempting to assassinate him by cruise missile attack and the introduction of French and British attack helicopters. The goal of the mission has also shifted from protecting civilians from attacks by pro-Khadaffi forces to regime change – a euphemism for overthrowing Khadaffi. But then once wars start, they tend to have their own merciless logic, don't they?

Not many more conceptual shifts are needed to defend the introduction of ground troops, especially if the military stalemate on the ground in Libya continues. The longer Khadaffi can hold out, the more sympathy he has been able to garner, especially in Africa and the Middle East, complicating the NATO mission and its humanitarian cover. At a certain point, NATO might feel mounting pressure to move towards sending ground troops to break the stalemate, of course, under the cover of an increasingly cynical 'humanitarian intervention' excuse.

Ground Troops or Not, Will NATO Set up an “Enduring” Military Base in Libya?

Tactically, it would be much simpler for the United States and NATO if the Libyan rebels can overthrow Khadaffi without NATO sending troops but it might not be possible. So while it might be possible for NATO to avoid sending ground troops, the notion that it simply won't happen or can't happen is becoming less and less tenable – the opinions of experts aside. Whether Khadaffi is overthrown with or without sending NATO ground troops, the strategic implications of a 'post Khadaffi' Libya are beginning to come into focus.

Should Khadaffi's rule be overthrown one way or another, any rebel government would be exceedingly weak and could not rule without support and 'supervision' by its NATO 'allies'. The end game could, in many ways, resemble what has been played out in Iraq.

  • For starters, there will be a much tighter control of Libyan oil and the profits thereof by Western oil companies. That has already started. In the areas it controls, the rebels are already selling oil to Western companies at rock bottom prices to pay for arms and supplies. Western hold over Libyan oil will tighten. OPEC will be weaker, etc.
  • The likelihood of permanent NATO/US military presence – excuse me – 'enduring' military bases in Libya is a more than likely possibility regardless if ground troops are introduced or not. If NATO ground troops are introduced, there simply will be some pretext for them to stay, in the name of supporting the rebel government. There is the possibility that even if NATO ground troops are not necessary to overthrow Khadaffi the rebel government, almost certain to be shaky – will invite them in anyway as advisors in one capacity or another. Regardless the presence will be substantial.

Redrawing the Political Map of North Africa, Strategic Considerations

A NATO permanent military presence in Libya would in many ways be the beginning of redrawing the map of North Africa – as the Russian press piece cited above alleges. Such a presence would have a number of potentially profound consequences, among them:

  • Within Libyan context it would prevent, at all costs, any move to re-instate Khadaffi or those close to him to power. Such a presence would go far to insuring a 'US-friendly' government would be ruling Libya and its sizeable amounts of low sulphur oil for a long time into the foreseeable future
  • The US and NATO would be in a position to monitor – if not manage – the Arab Revolt in its strongest manifestations – Tunisia and Egypt. Placed squarely between the two countries, a US military presence in Libya could be easily mobilized to counter political developments Washington finds objectionable. This is not insignificant as, remember how, events that started in 'little Tunisia' exploded region wide and were for several month seemingly beyond US influence
  • On a broader scale, a NATO military presence in Libya becomes an important springboard for the alliance in Africa, a continent whose strategic mineral resources, oil and gas cannot be underestimated. Competition for these resources between Europe and the USA on the one hand, India and China on the other will only intensify in the years to come. It is noteworthy (as mentioned in the first part of this series) that Khadaffi's Libya sells 60% of its oil to China, a situation certain to change should Khadaffi be removed
  • There have been strong tensions inside NATO with the United States trying to internationalize security operations (under Washington's direction), with Afghanistan being a kind of test case for taking the alliance outside of Europe and making into a worldwide police force. Although NATO reps claim the contrary, within the coalition there has been strong reservations and opposition to being forced to fight in Afghanistan. A NATO military base in Libya (or military 'presence') would give the alliance another lease on life outside of Europe and draw the Europeans into shouldering some of the costs of US security strategy in Europe.

A peace movement in the United States split over the US/NATO intervention in Libya only makes it more likely for Washington to implement its program.

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