What the Establishment Isn’t Telling You About Libya

Washington is erupting in euphoria and self-congratulation over Muammar Gaddafi’s death.  That celebration was predictably followed by further adulation in our sycophantic press system, which never saw a foreign intervention it didn’t like.  The usual propaganda about the United States’ vital role in ending world tyranny and promoting freedom and democracy is repeated ad nauseam, to the delight of the political and economic class.

First came the announcement of President Obama, reported in Reuters, which hailed Gaddafi’s death “as a warning to authoritarian leaders across the Middle East that iron-fisted rule ‘inevitably comes to an end,’ and as vindication for his [Obama’s] cautious strategy toward Libya.”

Editorial celebrations in the elite press quickly followed.  Highlighting past charges of terrorism against Gaddafi, the New York Times concluded that the U.S. and its allies “can feel relief and satisfaction in the supporting role they played in ending his horror.  Now they have to help and goad Libyans into building a stable and peaceful democracy.”  Furthering this paternalistic perspective were the editors of the Washington Post, who thanked Obama for having “rightly” focused on the problem of tracking down loose weapons stockpiles remaining after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime.  The Post encouraged Obama to take further actions, as “Libya’s stabilization under a democratic government could help tip the broader wave of change in the Arab Middle East toward those favoring freedom.”  Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ editors reminded the Obama administration of the need to “play a constructive role” in post-Gaddafi Libya: “The rebels could not have succeeded without months of relentless NATO airstrikes…[but] a longer term challenge is to establish a democratic and pluralistic society.  President Obama said Libya faced a long and winding road to democracy.  The United States and its allies can shorten that road by lending expertise to the designers of a new Libyan democracy.”

Buried within the LA Times editorial was the admission that a “deeper U.S. military involvement in Libya” (during the Civil War period earlier this year) seemed beyond the reach of the Obama administration “because no one seemed able to explain why that country was more appropriate for intervention than many other nations ruled by autocrats.”  This question is exactly what critical observers should be asking themselves when they hear self-adulating politicians celebrating U.S. “selflessness” and “altruism.”

The blatant hypocrisy of “democratic intervention” in Libya, coupled with U.S. support for brutal dictatorships throughout the rest of the world, is generally not considered a legitimate issue of discussion in U.S. political culture.  If this elementary point was discussed, pundits would immediately be forced to acknowledge the United States’ longstanding support for the repressive Saudi regime, which continues to escalate its human rights atrocities.

Consider, for example, the 2011 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on Saudi Arabia.  HRW condemns Saudi Arabia for pursuing merely “symbolic” reforms in terms of improving “the visibility of women” and establishing basic protections for freedom of expression.  The 2011 report highlights a pattern of Saudi abuses that can be described as nothing short of barbaric and medieval.  Torture is routinely used to extract “confessions,” while authorities systematically refuse to inform criminal suspects of the charges leveled against them.  It is common practice in Saudi Arabia to arrest citizens for criticizing prominent Sunni clerics, while women are treated as legal minors under the guardian system, which refuses to allow them basic rights taken for granted in Western countries.  Immigrant workers, who make up half of the country’s work force, are regularly repressed.  HRW describes their plight as akin to “slavery-like conditions” – seen most clearly in the “withholding [of] wages” and the “forcing [of many] migrants to work against their will.”  Unpaid workers who go on strike to protest their repressive work conditions are summarily deported without hearing or trial.  If these transgressions were not enough, the country is a world leader in beheadings, executing nearly 60 people in the first 10 months of 2011 alone, for a variety of unforgivable “offenses” such as being a homosexual, among other transgressions.

The hypocrisy of U.S. policy is quietly acknowledged in reporting from time to time in the mass media.  The Wall Street Journal, for example, reported in March 0f 2011 that the U.S. had shifted to promoting “regime alteration” with regard to U.S. autocratic allies in the Middle East, while simultaneously promoting total regime change in the case of Libya and Gaddafi.  As the WSJ reported, “the U.S. is urging protesters from Bahrain to Morocco to work with existing rulers” in terms of promoting reform.  “The approach has emerged amid furious lobbying of the [Obama] administration by Arab governments, who were alarmed that President Obama had abandoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and worried that, if the U.S. did the same to the beleaguered king of Bahrain, a chain of revolts could sweep them from power, too, and further upend the region’s stability.”

Of course, propaganda terms like “stability” are regularly employed in the mass media whenever U.S.-friendly dictators are threatened, whereas “stability” is quickly replaced with words like “democracy” and “liberation” whenever enemies of the state are under assault.  Such deception, however, is very much necessary for U.S. officials seeking to obscure ongoing U.S. support for repression and deterrence of democratic rights.  The case of Bahrain is instructive, as Saudi Arabia was provided with carte blanche support from the U.S. to escalate its massive human rights violations via attacks on Bahraini Shiite protestors.  Working closely with Bahrain’s Sunni government, the Saudi-Bahraini repression involved an official ban on the political opposition party, systematic detainment, beatings, and rape of female minors (and others), censorship of the country’s main opposition paper, and even the prosecution of dozens of the country’s top medical professionals, who were charged with the “crime” of providing medical treatment to protesters who were injured by Saudi government forces.  Such disgusting behavior is seen as absolutely vital by the U.S., since Bahrain is of vital strategic importance.  The country hosts the U.S. Fifth fleet and is geographically situated next to majority Shiite areas in Saudi Arabia, which hold the lion’s share of Saudi oil.  If these areas were to fall under independent (non-U.S.) Shiite control, it would pose a major threat to American dominance of the region’s oil reserves.  An independent Shiite government in Saudi Arabia would likely move toward strengthening relations with Shiite majority countries such as Iran and Iraq, which are both independent of U.S. control.  This nightmare scenario would be (and is) vehemently opposed by the U.S.

Savage repression by U.S. allies is conveniently ignored in editorial narratives that suggest the U.S. is involved in the Middle East simply to promote liberty and democracy.  The long U.S. history of acknowledging neocolonial policy concerns is also completely ignored.  Journalists benefitted from an extensive policy planning record to draw from, if they had decided to discuss U.S. imperial interests in Libya.  Policy motivations – simply put – have long been driven by concern with dominating Middle Eastern oil supplies by force, and with support for repressive, U.S.-friendly regimes in geographic areas (such as North Africa) that are tangential to the Middle East.

With regard to oil concerns, President George H. W. Bush articulated U.S. policy toward the Middle East, explaining in National Security Directive 26 that: “Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area are vital to United States national security.  The United States remains committed to its vital interests in the region, if necessary and appropriate through the use of military force, against the Soviet Union or any other force with interests inimical to our own.”

The Carter administration – the most “idealist” of the post-World War II presidencies in terms of its rhetoric – openly acknowledged in National Security Directive (NSD) 63 (and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) the need to ensure “the availability of oil [from the Middle East] at reasonable prices.”  Carter’s administration announced that any “attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States.  It will be repelled by the use of any means necessary, including military force.”  This policy of targeting unfriendly governments that reside in regions tangential to the Middle East was further reinforced in other official policy documents.  In discussing U.S. policy, the Reagan administration explained in NSD 27 the need “to ensure the U.S. access to foreign energy and mineral forces” as a key aspect of “national security” priorities.  Reagan described in NSD 57 that areas tangential to the Middle East, such as north-east Africa remain “important because of its strategic position with respect to the Persian Gulf.”  Carter established a similar concern in NSD 63, discussing U.S. interest in dominating Middle Eastern oil as also extending to the “horn of Africa.”

With specific regard to Libya, policy planners envisioned sanctions against Libya within a grander policy agenda.  The Reagan administration instated sanctions against Libyan oil in the name of promoting U.S. “national security.”  This designation of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi as official enemy of state was largely due to his participation in the non-aligned movement, in addition to his ties to the Soviet Union.  In NSD 32, the Reagan administration announced that it would spare no effort in opposing “inefficient economies” – or those challenging U.S. military and capitalist dominance – which were seen as “create[ing] opportunities for Soviet expansion in many parts of the developing world.”  Libya was considered to be one such “inefficient” economy.

Of course, Libya’s recent political circumstances saw much destabilization, as related to its civil war.  Such instability within “enemy” countries is historically portrayed by U.S. presidents as justification for U.S. intervention.  The Reagan administration, for example, spoke of “unstable governments” and “weak political institutions” within geographic areas of strategic importance as posing “threats to U.S. national security,” while the Nixon administration’s planning documents similarly warned of the importance of “maintaining stability” in repressive allied countries (such as Saudi Arabia and Iran) in the name of promoting U.S. geopolitical interests in the Middle East.

Destabilization of Libya posed major risks – direct and indirect – to U.S. regional dominance.  As already mentioned, Libya resides at the periphery of a Middle Eastern region that contains the vast majority of the world’s oil resources.  More directly, Libya itself holds as much as two percent of world oil reserves; rebellion in Libya threatened to upset the flow of this resource, with up to a million barrels of oil removed from global markets, and with investors increasingly nervous that rebellion could spread to other nearby oil producers such as Algeria.  Although Libya produces two percent of all world oil, and exports little of that to the U.S., its oil is of a high quality – which magnifies its importance in the world market.  Furthermore, disruptions even in countries with relatively smaller reserves threaten the allied European oil market (countries like Italy and Spain are heavily reliant on Libyan oil).  This reliance explains to a large extent strong European and NATO interest in intervening in the Libyan conflict.  Historically, the U.S. has retained major interest in disruptions in European economic markets, worrying that such instability might spill over into the increasingly volatile American economy.

None of the above points are addressed in any serious or consistent way in the U.S. media and in political circles.  Sadly, the propaganda discussion that passes for “dialogue” on Libya extends little beyond open sycophantic worship of the Obama administration’s “visionary” and “cautious” approach to dealing with the Libya conflict.  At most, Republicans criticized Obama for failing to secure Republican support for intervention.  However, we shouldn’t let this perverted discussion obscure our understanding of what was really at stake in this conflict.  U.S. interests in Libya are no different, strategically speaking, than those throughout the Middle East.  The same contempt for democracy drives U.S. foreign policy, regardless of location.

Anthony DiMaggio is the author of numerous books, The Rise of the Tea Party, due out in November 2011 from Monthly Review Press, and  other works such as Crashing the Tea Party (2011); When Media Goes to War (2010); and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008).  He has taught American politics and International Relations in Political Science at a number of colleges and universities, and can be reached at: adimag2@uic.edu

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.