Thursday, March 31, 2011

Libya for Dummies: the lipstick doctrine

The Lipstick Doctrine
In the Victorian age, the British once sang – “We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do/ We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.” The Libyan intervention feels like a last reprise of that old tune, rather than a bold statement for a new age. Gideon Rachman - Financial Times

The president seemed to provide little guidance for what position he would take in other, more vital nations in the region now roiled by an “Arab Spring” of popular uprising. Nor did Mr. Obama’s speech on Monday shed light on whether the president would use force in other trouble spots. - New York Times
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We now have an "Obama Doctrine", which after Guantanamo and Afghanistan, might be defined, paraphrasing Groucho Marx,  "This is my doctrine, if you don't like it, I've got others".

This "doctrine" has all the rigor of something that doctors in British emergency rooms call the "Dirt Index", which is arrived at by multiplying the number of the patient's tattoos by the number of the patient's missing teeth, which gives us the exact number of days since the patient last had a bath. This is just a way of making a joke of a bad smell that has to be dealt with.

What is happening in Libya is very simple, but it is connected to some things that are quite complicated.

The simple part is that if we ignore all the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) drivel -- Congo, Bahrain, Syria, Myanmar  etc, need not apply --  perhaps it may be noted that, a short hop away, just across the Mare Nostrum from the wealthy European Union, which houses NATO, America's only real allies; outside the troubled Middle East; this side of the Persian Gulf; this side of the Suez Canal; far from energy-rich Russia; in a country with very few people and unchallenging geography; controlled by a very awkward character with no friends left; a hair-challenged tyrant who is opposed by a ragtag group of desperate and poorly armed nobodies, people who can be bought for a song; just waiting to become a UN protectorate, while they develop "democratic institutions"... lies a huge amount of oil.

"Low hanging fruit", you might call it.

As an anonymous commentator on my previous post suggested:
"At present prices, Libyan oil production is about $185 million a day. Amortizing the development costs of weapons that are mostly exported at $100 million a day for a month is a bargain if it gets you hooked up with $200 million a day for the next 3 decades."
So at least if we remove all the gooey humanitarian intervention cant and as long as almost none of our people get hurt, this operation does make some sense. Nothing particularly brave and noble about it all, but it makes sense.

The rest of the situation, like they say on Facebook, is "complicated".

The American media is full of rejoicing about the shared democratic values of the "Arab Spring", the president speaks soaringly about being "on the right side of history"... talk about your putting lipstick on a pig.

What the "Arab Spring" -- the empowering of the "Arab street" -- means is that America's position in the Middle East, if not totally collapsed, has been made infinitely more complicated. The last thing the USA has ever wanted is for Middle Eastern governments to follow the opinion of their subjects (oops, citizens), as the people of that region tend to frown on "Zionists and crusaders". Supporting "security states" has been America's modus operandi  in the Middle East for many years. The people who own stuff in the region have built their lives around those policies... and they are being left out to dry.
People who had been mainstays of American policies for decades and did our dirty work for us without question are being abandoned without ceremony.  Remaining power elites in the area and beyond have seen that being a lockstep ally of the USA is of little survival value when push comes to shove. And the new power elites that may arise, no matter what ideology they may profess, will have taken note of how little value we had  for their predecessors in their hour of need, and plan accordingly. 

A disaster. Instability in the Persian Gulf is practically guaranteed for many years to come... Certainly the European Union's access to Middle Eastern oil has been made more problematic.

Since it never rains but what it pours, this has all happened precisely at the moment when Japan's catastrophe has taken nuclear power off the menu of solutions for the energy shortfall.

The winner in this situation, is of course Europe's eastern neighbor Russia, which has all the oil and gas that the EU might need. 

Bottom line, the United States can no longer guarantee Europe's energy supply. 

Russia can. 

Russia abstained on the Libyan resolution.

Ironies of history: the USSR has disappeared and Russia has just won the Cold War.

Which takes us to another abstainer: Germany.

The Germans have been taking a lot of harsh criticism for their abstention from the UN Libya resolution, however it may prove to have been a brilliant move.

As far as France, Britain and reluctantly the United States is concerned this entire operation is predicated on the idea that as soon as his air force was destroyed Qaddafi would simply dry up and blow away, fly up his fundament and disappear. This doesn't seem to be happening. As I said in a previous post, Libya's "Brother Leader", is a very tough old bird and it very well may be that he cannot be defeated without the "coalition" putting "boots on the ground"... something they have repeatedly said they are not prepared to do and which the UN resolution doesn't provide cover for. If they do decide to use ground forces to bring down Qaddafi and control Libya the consequences could be dire for France and Britain...  As Max Hastings wrote in the Financial Times:
The Americans remain irritably aware that they have been bullied into participation in a speculative adventure, for which they are obliged to do the heavy lifting, because the British and French cheerleaders lack the firepower. For instance, of 112 cruise missiles fired at Libya on Sunday night when the offensive began, just three were British, and one of those got stuck in its launch tube.
It is obvious that to decisively defeat Qaddafi, bring the post-Qaddafi situation under control so that "free" Libya does not turn into a rest and recreation center cum cash cow for Al Qaeda, American military involvement will be needed indefinitely. Deeply indebted America cannot afford it and there is little or no public support for it. Horrible as he is, Qaddafi may still be the best option: he has been at the same time horrible and the best option for over forty years.

So, if Qaddafi wins his civil war, negotiations will have to take place in order to renew access to his oil (so near and yet so far). Guess which country is uniquely placed to lead those negotiations? The only European power that abstained... Germany, of course.

At this point Germany holds not only a possible key to the Libyan oil, its cooperation with Russia in the Nord Stream gas pipeline gives them a vital key to northern Europe's energy needs. This is added to the reality that as by far Europe's most powerful economy, Germany holds the keys to the survival of the euro and ultimately the European Union itself. So, without firing a shot, Germany has secured many of the objectives, certainly the "place in the sun", which it sought at the cost of ruin and devastation in World Wars One and Two.

As to NATO, if its founding mission objective was famously, to "keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down" as of this moment it has failed, and this Libyan operation is the dramatization of that failure.

Sometimes in modern history these small, "colonial" incidents like  the "Fashoda Incident" of 1898 can be seen, with 20/20 hindsight, to mark a turning point in international relations. It may be that in a few years this Libyan adventure will be seen as such a turning point, the end of one paradigm and the birth of a new one, whose shape we can only see imperfectly now. DS


Anonymous said...

I'm not a bleeding heart, but Libya is the only country on that list that was so repressive that people didn't dare speak badly about Gaddafi even in their family lest they disappear never to be seen again.

Good riddance to Gaddafi.

As for the others: Myanmar is protected by the PR China, and any intervention in Congo / Ivory Coast will be controversial, costly, messy, and protracted.

Bahrain is a reasonably healthy country, in which the arguments are at heart over welfare payments to recently naturalized citizens who won't do the jobs migrant laborers do.

Meddling in Syria risks unleashing simmering ethnic hatreds that at the very least rival those in what was Yugoslavia.

Libya is the only country in which an intervention will be self-financing.

I am no die hard neocon, but I am happy to see the tyrant Gaddafi being given the heave-ho.

stunted said...

I would suggest googling Immanuel Wallerstein for his Commentary 302.

Brett said...

I dunno about these other comments, yet. But this blog is awesome.