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Power Politics, NATO, and the Libyan Intervention

The recent NATO intervention against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya has been a considerable source of contention among many on the left, with self-proclaimed progressives, most notably Juan Cole, openly supporting this military action.

The intervention clearly exceeded the parameters originally set forth by UN Security Council resolution 1973, which authorized the international use of force to establish a “no fly” zone over Libya and to protect civilians; the UN resolution made no mention of regime change or government overthrow, though this clearly was NATO’s main objective from the beginning. The Security Council also called for a Libyan arms embargo, a stipulation that NATO has ignored by arming the Libyan rebels. The intervention has not only violated international law, but US law as well: The Obama administration’s decision to participate in the war was undertaken with no congressional authorization over an extended period, thus violating the provisions of the 1973 War Powers Resolution. The intervention has been an extended exercise in illegality. Supporters of the war seem willing to overlook these legal shortcomings because of the “higher purpose” of the intervening powers. In light of this perception, a clear-eyed examination of NATO’s interests is essential.

The first NATO interest was to use the Libya intervention as a showcase for European weaponry, in order to increase overseas arms sales. While arms sales were certainly not the only motive for the intervention, this was at least one of the motives. Manufacturers of the French Rafale fighter, the Swedish Gripen, and the multinational Typhoon all sought to impress international arms purchasers with the quality of these planes in the Libyan intervention. The intervention was, in the words of a Reuters headline “a showcase in the new arms race.”

With regard to arms sales, the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy has played an especially interesting role, in using the Libya campaign to sell the Rafale fighter. Let us consider the plane’s history: Developed at great expense by the French government and the Dassault corporation, the Rafale had been produced on the assumption that overseas sales would offset some of the cost. After all, France had a long history as one of the world’s more cynical arms merchants, and previous classes of fighter planes were excellent export items, with sales to numerous states (including ironically enough the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which was a major purchaser of French equipment during the 1970s). Despite this history, the Rafale itself was initially a failure, with no export orders at all, despite strenuous efforts. The French were trying to sell the plane to Gaddafi as late as 2010, though unsuccessfully. In January 2011 – just before the anti-Gaddafi bombing campaign began –the Rafale was called “The French Fighter Jet that No One Wants.”

Then, the Libyan intervention took place, with France playing the leading role, and with the Rafale as the featured weapons system. Indeed, Rafales were the very first aircraft to engage Gaddafi’s forces, which led some analysts to wonder whether the operation was “an advertisement for the Dassault Rafale fighter jet,” in the words of Foreign Policy magazine. It seems safe to assume that the Rafale’s export prospects have improved considerably, thanks to the Libya campaign. No doubt France and other European states are especially eager for arms sales to offset rising unemployment associated with the lingering effects of the 2007-2009 recession. The old fashioned idea of military Keynesianism remains relevant, in light of the weakness of the economic recovery.

Another factor in the Libyan intervention was the budgetary dilemmas associated with the European militaries. Due to reduced revenues, resulting from the recession, several European states have experienced revenue shortfalls, and their governments have responded with massive budget cutting, most notably in Great Britain. These budget cuts have had an especially severe impact on the UK’s Royal Navy. With the decommissioning of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and all remaining carrier-based aircraft by late 2010, the Navy ceased to have any operational combat aircraft for the first time in decades, and could play no direct role in the aerial bombardment of Gaddafi’s Libya. The Royal Navy no doubt felt the state of affairs to be a humiliation, and they sought to use the Libya intervention as an opportunity to protest the cuts — apparently with some success. Shortly after the Libya bombing campaign commenced, there was open discussion in the British press that the naval cuts had been a mistake and needed to be reconsidered.

In addition, the Royal Air Force gained political benefits from the intervention. According to the BBC, “The crisis in Libya and recent events across the Middle East may well help the RAF… The RAF had feared losing more of its Tornado GR4 fleet in order to save up to £300m a year and may now be able to argue a stronger case for keeping them on.” The Libya intervention thus helped to create a political environment that was more conducive to military spending. Progressives who support this intervention must realize that they are making it easier to justify militarism and military spending more generally, in both Europe and the United States.

And finally, there is the question of oil, which clearly constituted the most important interest of all. Libya is a sizable oil producer, with the world’s ninth largest reserves. Several of the world’s major oil companies have invested in Libya, including ENI of Italy, Total of France, Conoco-Phillips of the US, and BP of Britain, among many others. At the time of the popular uprising against Gaddafi, there was considerable anxiety in oil circles about the possibility of generalized political breakdown and chaos, with attendant threats to oil supplies and investments. This concern was noted repeatedly in the world oil and business press. In February 2011, for example, the International Oil Daily reported: “The shockwaves from the violence engulfing Libya have hit the oil industry hard. Not only have they sent oil prices soaring to near two-and-a-half-year highs, but there are also reports that all ports and refineries are no longer operating – and signs that he expected spiral or production shut-ins has begun as oil industry staff continue to leave the country as and when they can.”

More generally, there exists widespread anxiety about the unrest sweeping across the Arab world, including the very valuable Persian Gulf, and the dangers that these events pose for Western oil supplies. It seems likely that the oil companies have welcomed the Western military intervention as a stabilizing factor for Libyan oil; and also as a show of force for the whole Arab world, to demonstrate that the Western powers still exert control. It should be noted that Western corporations have long relied on military interventions by their home governments to protect or open up investment opportunities overseas, and it seems likely that Libya is the latest illustration of this basic corporate tendency.[i]

And oil may have had additional influences on the Libyan intervention. It appears that the Total company of France was seeking to take advantage of France’s leading role in the intervention, in order to augment its participation in Libyan oil, once the conflict was ended; and to do so at the expense of oil companies from other countries (notably Italy) that played less of a role in the intervention. According to Oil and Gas News: “ENI’s dominant position in Libya’s oil sector could be undermined by Italy’s hesitant backing for pro-rebel foreign military intervention, paving the way for a greater say for France’s Total and possibly UK [oil] groups.” Of course, a full analysis of oil interests in this intervention must await further release of information. But the information that is already available suggests that oil was a factor in the decision making process that led to intervention in this case.

But what about the claim that NATO’s intervention is based on moralistic concerns about Gaddafi’s repression and human rights abuses? While there is no doubt that Gaddafi is a tyrant, it is implausible to argue that this was a major motivation for the NATO intervention. The problem is that France, the United States and the UK maintained close relations with Gaddafi, until his hold on power became doubtful due to mass uprising against him. It is important to note that the NATO relationship with Gaddafi was not one of mere diplomatic cordiality, but it extended to such sensitive issues as the sales of advanced military equipment and intelligence collaboration. We have already discussed the French efforts to sell him arms. In addition, the US and British intelligence services worked closely with the Libyans in the distasteful process of “extraordinary rendition,” whereby suspected terrorists would be transported overseas, for interrogation and torture by Libyan operatives. The Western warmth toward the Gaddafi dictatorship also included US, British, French, and Italian oil companies, which established strong relationships with Gaddafi. The warmth extended even to British universities: The London School of Economics accepted a sizable donation from the Gaddafi family, which was eager to buy legitimacy. This donation attracted little public criticism – until NATO began preparing to intervene in early 2011 and the donation suddenly became a source of embarrassment. From the United States, the Monitor Group consultancy arranged for prestigious public figures to travel to Libya and meet with Gaddafi. The invited guests included Richard Perle and Francis Fukuyama– and their Libyan trips elicited criticism only after Gaddafi was confronted with mass insurrection. Previously, Gaddafi was a perfectly respectable “statesman” for key members of the US and European elite.

In short, the NATO states broke with Gaddafi very suddenly, in response to a mass discontent, which raised doubts about his long term viability as a diplomatic partner and arms purchaser. The remarkable suddenness of the Western break with Gaddafi makes this break appear hypocritical and opportunistic, rather than morally based.

Overall, the Libyan intervention appears as just another iteration in the familiar – if revolting — idea of realpolitik, whereby Western states pursue their narrow self interests, and then justify their actions through pompous rhetoric. Those of us with critical minds should not be fooled or deluded by this rhetoric.

David N. Gibbs is Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Arizona. He can be reached at dgibbs@arizona.edu.

Notes. 

[i] Regarding past instances where corporations favored overseas intervention as a means to protect trade and investments, see Ben Baack, Ben and Edward Ray, “The Political Economy of the Origins of the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States” Journal of Economic History 45, no. 2, 1985. During the 1999 NATO intervention against Serbia, Barron’s noted how investors were strongly supportive of the intervention, presumably because the successful NATO show of force had an important demonstration effect, which served to protect Western investments on a world-wide basis. See Alan Abelson, “Up and Down on Wall Street: Gun Boat Rally,” Barron’s, March 29, 1999. Corporate support was also apparent in the 1992 intervention in Somalia, where the Conoco oil was a strong supporter of military action. See David N. Gibbs, “Realpolitik and Humanitarian Intervention: The Case of Somalia,” International Politics 37, no. 1, 2000, dgibbs.faculty.arizona.edu/sites/dgibbs.faculty.arizona.edu/files/somalia.pdf.

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