It’s Not the Oil, Stupid

Humanitarian concerns are driving America's involvement in Libya

Just as with George W. Bush’s Iraq war, this administration’s “kinetic military action” in Libya is arrogant, reckless, cowardly, wasteful, foolish-and possibly illegal, given the lawsuit that a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed against it last week. But it is not a malevolent plot to secure cheap oil for the American economy.

The latest to lob this accusation is Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald has considerable street cred because, unlike his comrades on the antiwar left, he didn’t melt away after President Obama replaced President Bush in the White House. He stuck around, doing yeoman’s work, calling out Obama for his serial violations of civil liberties. He is the standard-bearer for everyone (including me) dismayed by America’s post-9/11 belligerence. But attributing the wrong motives to war-makers won’t end warfare.

Greenwald insists the administration is lying when it says it is in Libya to protect civilians rather than install a regime that is a “reliable servant to Western oil interests.” “Does anyone think we’re going to care about The Libyan People if they’re being oppressed or brutalized by a reliably pro-Western successor to Gadhafi?” he asks. The people in many Arab countries are clamoring to overthrow their murderous rulers. But America has dispatched bombs only against Moammar Gadhafi. Why? Because, in Greenwald’s telling, he had become overly possessive of his oil.

Greenwald rests his case on a rather tendentious reading of a single Washington Post story revealing that lately, Gadhafi had been demanding bigger up-front payments from Western countries for drilling rights and greater profit-sharing. This allegedly offers proof that the United States wages wars “not for humanitarian or freedom-spreading purposes, but rather to exploit the resources of other nations for its own large corporations.”

The idea that oil lust drives America’s Middle East policy is a perennial-and tired-saw invoked by U.S. critics both at home and abroad. But why, then, does America keep spurning this oil through sanctions on hostile regimes? In the decade between the two Iraq wars, America wouldn’t let Saddam Hussein sell any oil except for food. Washington’s sanctions on Iranian oil are costing America $38 billion to $76 billion annually in lost revenue. And America had sworn off Libyan oil until Gadhafi abandoned plans to develop weapons of mass destruction and compensated the victims of the Lockerbie terrorist bombing.

That we are after Libya’s oil is particularly untenable for the simple reason that Libya is only a bit player in the world oil market. It is not even among our top 15 crude oil suppliers. The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels a day and Libya produces 1.7 million barrels for the whole globe. America lost 1 million barrels a day during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the U.S. economy barely hiccuped.

Launching an unpopular war that has already cost the U.S. $700 million at a time of record deficits and debt in order to protect such paltry supplies seems too dumb even for an Ivy League president-especially since this oil won’t do Gadhafi much good if he refuses to sell it to the West, where half the planet’s oil consumers reside. Nor does it make sense that we want to replace Gadhafi because he’ll cut us off from Libya’s future oil reserves, which are admittedly considerable. That’s because the best expertise to exploit these reserves actually resides in the West, which is why Western companies, including American, have the bulk of drilling contracts in Libya right now. Gadhafi threatened to hand these contracts to India, China and Brazil-but after we attacked him. Indeed, if we wanted only to promote our corporate interest, coddling him would be a far better strategy.

If keeping oil in friendly hands can’t be the motive for the Libyan intervention, how does one explain why this administration is hounding Gadhafi? The real reason is, in fact, humanitarian.

Humanitarian considerations might not solely inform this administration’s Mideast policy, but they are an important part of the mix. Had Libya been of more economic, strategic or security importance like Syria, Bahrain, and Egypt, we might not have indulged them. But it is not, so there is little reason not to. In other words, “humanitarian outcomes” are not the “byproduct” of our intervention in Libya, they are the core reason we are there even if this hurts our oil prospects.

The antiwar camp likes the greed rationale because it wants to blame America’s seemingly endless quest for war on the inherent logic of its system. But the truth is that the Bush administration had its own reasons for engaging in optional wars and the Obama administration has its own. To pin every war on the greed of corporate capitalism has the virtue of parsimony, but it is false. Greed is arguably more a force for timidity than belligerence in the world.

It might be disconcerting that the road to global hell is being paved not by our greed but our good intentions. But building a solid case against war will require us to admit just that. We don’t serve the cause of peace in Libya or elsewhere by making this all about oil all the time.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a columnist at The Daily, where this article originally appeared. This column first appeared at