I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with two old friends, Julian Hartman and Sam Imlay, for an extended conversation about issues relevant to voters’ choices this fall, issues which have either been overlooked or misrepresented by the bipartisan cheerleading-industrial complex. In Julian’s original vision, this was going to be a debate between an Obama supporter, a Romney supporter, and myself (“neither”/Green), but perhaps unsurprisingly, the other two backed out.
What we ended up with is an in-depth Q&A which I’ve cut into chunks according to topic. There’s some robust discussion, and a good time was had by all. Check back every couple days for a new clip!
Sam sent me this thoughtful follow-up to our conversation, which I’d like to share with you all here:
“So, I’ve been thinking a bit about your argument about Gaddafi’s threat to nationalize Libya’s oil industry. I wasn’t fully satisfied with the counterargument I made during our discussion about why this doesn’t provide a compelling explanation for the US’s actions. I suggested that if the US was worried about oil price instability, then instability in oil prices consequent of political unrest in Libya would essentially override or displace any prior US concerns about how nationalization might affect oil prices. If that was true, then the contrast between France and the UK’s more assertive responses/campaigns on one hand and the Obama Administration’s initially hesitant reactions on the other would reflect the fact that Libyan oil (~85% of its oil exports) goes mostly to European ports and refineries, and that supply instability would have a lesser impact on oil prices in the US. In turn, this would indicate that the US didn’t intervene primarily out of an interest in oil price stability. (And while it is true that oil is priced on the global market, it’s also true that oil commodities are priced as many different oil products–based on point of origin and other characteristics–many of which US markets don’t buy but European markets do).
But if your argument is that the US intervened in the more narrow economic interests of its multinational oil corporations in Libya, then this rebuttal doesn’t really address the nationalization argument you made. I still don’t find it convincing, however, for a few reasons. First, Libya’s oil production isn’t that critical to world (much less US) supply–if the sum total of its annual exports went to the EU, they would satisfy about 13% of current EU oil demand. Moreover, Libya’s National Oil Corporation is already responsible for 70% of production, so we’re talking about nationalizing the other 30% produced by private companies. This doesn’t resolve the multinationals’ interest in a continued private market, but in conjunction with the export/price arguments, it does narrow the US national interest in that private production.
So if the Obama Administration is still really interested in the multinationals’ long-term interests, nationalization might be a problem. As your source for Gaddafi’s nationalization threat (the Forbes article) noted, however, when Gaddafi and the Libyan press were making noises about nationalization in late 2008/early 2009, they were complaining that crude prices were at $43 a barrel. By the time protests and unrest began in February 2011, prices were back up in the high $80s, low $90s range. (As the Romney campaign likes to remind us, oil prices have increased substantially since Obama took office. As Obama reminded us Tuesday night, that’s in part because they were incredibly low when he was inaugurated). So if we trust Gaddafi’s rationale for nationalization, then the basis of the nationalization threat had really evaporated by the time the US chose to intervene.
I doubt the US was concerned about its multinationals’ prospects in the event that the rebels somehow prevailed without NATO support, because I don’t think that a new government would be substantially less tolerant of private oil than the Gaddafi government was. This still leaves short-term volatility in US multinationals’ profits as a potential concern, but not the kind that would compel such a domestically unpopular military action.
One might argue that the US could have intervened because it was wary of later nationalization threats by Gaddafi, but Gaddafi’s 2009 threat didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about the regime’s attitudes toward the US. We already knew that his was the sort of government that might make such threats and irritate the US (remember when he started a nuclear program?).
So it is likely true that the decision to intervene took into consideration that Gaddafi’s was a long-unfriendly (though getting friendlier since c. 2006) government in a generally sensitive region of the US’s foreign policy world; but this has less to do with a specific, Libyan threat to oil supplies or US multinationals than it does with the US’s broad interests in Middle Eastern geopolitics and in the region’s oil supplies generally.
That’s the argument I would make about US opportunism in Libya. For what it’s worth, I think the humanitarian concern was genuine but subordinate to more self-interested considerations (if one can reconcile those). I might also venture that US support of the UK and French initiatives also had something to do with bolstering NATO’s institutional strength at a time when the US’s political, military, and fiscal capacities to intervene by itself have waned and its foreign policy has begun to pivot away from the region (all this, of course, against NATO’s more general post-Cold War existential crisis).”