Libya: No-Fly Zone And The Politics Of Oil

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The Financial Times reported that rebel leader said countries that don't support them would not get Libya's oil wealth

[Black Star News Editorial]

As Muammar al-Qathafi's army used its airforces and artillery to back ground forces and turn its fortunes there was urgency in Western capitals this week leading to imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya.

Yet in recent weeks there has been no disguising the fact that interest in Libya's phenomenal oil riches was the underlying factor dictating Western interest and the drumbeat for intervention led by France and Britain.

Libya's oil curse is different from the traditional narrative where an oil-rich country sees it's economy sink as it ignores agriculture and manufacturing becoming dependent solely on oil revenue. In Libya just possessing so much oil wealth, with a population of a mere 6.5 million, is a curse.

While the United Nations-imposed no-fly zone is cynically masked behind the language of "humanitarian" dictates to help the suffering Libyan civilians, logic suggests otherwise. Where was this concern when the rebels were rapidly gaining and marching towards Tripoli in their quest to depose long-term ruler Muammar al-Qathafi?

Moreover, the newspapers have been a lot more honest than the politicans. On February 28, The Wall Street Journal had proclaimed triumphantly, on a front page headline "Oil Flows, As Rebels Gain in Libya." According to the Journal article then, "Libyan rebels pressed the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi Sunday, taking control of a key city near the capital of Tripoli, declaring a provisional government and allowing oil shipments to resume from territory under their control."

Then when the tide turned, the references to oil came from a starkly different perspective. On Monday, the pressure to secure a no-fly zone was driven into sharp focus.  In a story under the headline "Libyan rebels' chief in plea for support as Gaddafi gains ground," The Financial Times reported that rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, until one month ago Muamar al-Qathafi's justice minister, "warned countries that have failed to support the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi that they would be denied access to Libya's vast oil riches if the regime is deposed."

In certain circles this is referred to as blackmail.

Clearly, the longer the conflict lasts, the more painful the lack of access to Libya's oil becomes to some Western economies. Italy's prime minister Berlusconi had very good relations with al-Qathafi but called on him to step down when the uprising was launched. While Italy joined in the Western imposed sanctions, in a story in The Wall Street Journal today, Paolo Scaroni, CEO of Italy's leading oil company Eni SpA criticized the move. He said Europe was "shooting itself on the foot." Italy relied on Libyan flows for 25% of its oil energy needs and 10% of its gas.

If Qathafi retains power, presumably it would be difficult for the West to find an excuse to lift the sanctions quickly--which also lends urgency to the U.K. and French preference for regime change.

The U.S. might have resigned to the possibility of living with al-Qathafi's government surviving. That's probably why the U.S. initially wasn't eager for a no-fly zone. The U.S. had to support the vote today. Republicans won't be able to say in 2012 that "Obama lost Libya."

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague had said about a month ago that al-Qathafi was already on a plane to Venezeula. When quick collapse didn't happen, the U.S. became concerned. The U.S. knows that any prolonged "Western" military involvement would end up solely on the laps of Washington; just as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The White House does not want to be in charge of new protracted military engagement, heading into the U.S. Presidential season, which will pick up during this summer. The U.S. also knows that the way things are going right now in Yemen, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia, where autocrats or monarchs are threatened by pro-democracy uprisings, there could be new frontlines and faultlines very soon, demanding U.S. attention and resources.

While France and the U.K. may preach "humanitarian needs" their silence in the face of the regimes' brutal reactions to civilian protests in Yemen and Bahrain exposes their hypocrisy. Both countries are eyeing the richest oil fields in all of Africa; right there in Libya. France and the U.K. likely want to expand the war and push al-Qathafi back to Tripoli. They aim to destroy his airforce, his tanks and his artillery pieces; these armaments can't be hidden in the clear desert.

If not late, an effective no-fly zone would allow the rebels, now holed up in Benghazi, to launch a counter-offensive with the knowledge of no longer being vulnerable to air strikes. The "rebels," whose members possibly could include Egyptians and other "volunteers" would presumably then push al-Qathafi's troops back and eventually install a pro-Western government.

The calculus could shift very quickly if: there are French or U.K. casualties; if the U.S.-backed regimes in Bahrain and Yemen teeter on the brink; or if al-Qathafi's ground forces still reach Benghazi.

On the other hand, the French and U.K. involvements may ignite new and unpredictable fires.

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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