When NATO Leaves, Don't Forget Libya
Now that the UN Security Council has cancelled its authorization for the NATO mission in Libya, October 31 is expected to mark the end of the West's (overt) military involvement in the country. With this end, so too will likely follow the end of media and public interest. Without a zany dictator to hunt down and kill, the story that will begin to unfold will lack the Hollywood-esque adventure and intrigue that the former story enjoyed. It will also be a story that the mainstream media won't want America to know. But this story will be just as important—if not more important—for Americans to understand than the story that came before, especially with the Occupy Wall Street movement in the background, facilitating a general awakening to the influence of corporations on US policy. If the mainstream media gets its way, however, most Americans will continue to sleep comfortably in their beds at night, consoled by the belief that the United States did its part in freeing a people from oppression and tyranny.
Unfortunately, the only “people” for whom NATO and the United States intended to make Libya free were fellows like ConocoPhillips, Coca-Cola, Total, Occidental, Caterpillar and Halliburton. And now that Qaddafi is gone, they must be celebrating in the streets—or, rather, the Street. Occupiers: beware.
Some claim that the US had no economic interest in intervening in Libya since, after he abandoned his nuclear ambitions and after the US removed sanctions on his country, Qaddafi was “our man.”
The evidence, however, doesn't seem to support such a strong claim. While some US companies were able to break into the Libyan economy, some were thwarted, and it seems that everyone, to some extent, was disappointed.
In March, the New York Times came into possession of some confidential State Department cables released by WikiLeaks. These documents detailed the frustrations experienced by US corporations attempting to get a foothold in the Libyan economy. According to one State Department cable, “Libya is a kleptocracy in which the regime — either the al-Qadhafi family itself or its close political allies — has a direct stake in anything worth buying, selling or owning.” Qaddafi and his cronies often required companies to pay “signing bonuses” ranging in value from millions of dollars to $1 billion in at least one case, and Qaddafi personally signed off on contracts worth $200 million or more. Foreign companies were often required to have local business partners, usually headed by one of Qaddafi's sons. Internal conflicts between Qaddafi siblings made doing business difficult. A squabble between two siblings and their companies over the control of a Coca-Cola bottling plant forced the plant to shut down for months. Qaddafi even tried to force international oil companies to contribute to the fund for victims of various Libyan terror schemes, including the Lockerbie bombing. He apparently also threatened to nationalize the oil industry, a sure way to find yourself on the receiving end of a US-backed regime change operation.
So, while the US may have had high hopes that it could cozy up to the devil back in 2004, it became quite cynical once it became duly acquainted with the wretch. As former White House and Treasury official Juan Zarate noted, “I don’t think this is the way anyone would have wanted it to work out.”
This story is echoed in other sources on the subject. Just check out the Heritage Foundation's 2011 Index of Economic Freedom. For those who are not acquainted with this resource, it's basically a report card on the compliance of all of the world's economies with the Washington Consensus. Libya's grade in neoliberalism: 38.6/100. Which you should all remember from school is a solid F. Libya's class rank was 173 out of 179 economies. Its composite score was just one point above that of Venezuela. Even Iran ranked above Libya. Reasons for this low mark include a sluggish move toward privatization, political resistance to market-oriented reforms, non-transparent and arbitrary regulations, poor protection of property rights, barriers to repatriating profits, and “one of the world’s most burdensome” bureaucracies. It is also noted that “[a]t least 35 percent of a non-Libyan business must be controlled by Libyan individuals or companies.”
Another interesting thing to note is that, according to the Heritage Foundation's index, the most free economy in the Middle East is—take a guess? Bahrain. In fact, Bahrain is ranked tenth in the world. Puts the contrast in US response to the situations in Libya and Bahrain in perspective, doesn't it?
Now, it's no secret that Libya is an oil rich nation. Its reserves are especially prized—they are the largest in all of Africa, with 46 billion barrels proven to be lying untapped beneath the desert sands. As US Ambassador Gene Cretz said on the day the American flag was hoisted once again above the embassy in Tripoli, “We know that oil is the jewel in the crown of Libyan natural resources.” Getting at that oil is going to require investment and development. And that's going to require new legislation that makes investing in Libya more attractive. Additionally, the existing infrastructure is going to require reconstruction, which is where companies like Halliburton and Schlumberger come in. It's no wonder that, in the same breath in which he proclaimed the wonders of Libyan oil, Ambassador Cretz added that, “[i]f we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs.” Way to give away the game, Cretz.
But the ambitious ambassador is not the only one eager to claim Libya's oil for the good ole' US-of-A and other Western interests. Oil analysts, traders and investors have been practically frothing at the mouth ever since NATO hijacked the UN-sanctioned mission to protect Libyan civilians in order to pursue and destroy their flamboyant tyrant. After Qaddafi's death was confirmed, the always demure Lindsey Graham told Fox News that “[t]here is a lot of money to be made in the future in Libya. Lots of oil to be produced. Let’s get on the ground and help the Libyan people establish a democracy and a functioning economy based on free market principles.” Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of Libya's Transitional National Council (TNC) and now leader of the transitional government, has indicated that the rebel's Western backers would receive “priority” access under a new government. Special treatment for US companies would be just the kind of “free market” Senator Graham hoped for, although similar treatment for countries like France will likely cause him some chagrin.
But not everything is about oil. Indeed, there are plenty of other ways to make a dime—or a trillion. Trade, telecom, food services, military equipment, infrastructure, utilities—if the US gets its way, it'll all be up for grabs in Libya.
Now, we don't know too much at this point about how well the Libyan government will play with the West. In order to keep its hold on power, the new government will need to appease the people to some extent by means of financial concessions. Jalil has already promised a cap on interest rates in accordance with Sharia law, which is a nod to the people but a big no-no according to neoliberal doctrine.
The US, however, has its ways of swaying opinion. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit to Tripoli last week with an $11 million check in tow, bringing US aid contributions to the TNC up to $40 million. The secretary's mission in Libya? Security, governance, and, oh, yeah, opening Libya's economy to foreign trade and investment.
And don't forget that the US Treasury has about $37 billion in frozen Libyan assets under its control. Members of Congress have already spent much time throwing around possible conditions on thawing the dough, from reimbursing NATO countries who took part in the intervention to financing the U.S.-Libya Comprehensive Claims Settlement Fund. With an estimated $200 billion in frozen assets scattered around the world, international governments (and, by proxy, their corporations) can potentially exert much power over the fledgling Libyan government. And to whom will they be accountable when no one is looking?
Then there's the flip side: billions of dollars flowing into the hands of a few Libyan officials could very well lead to corruption. It's happened before in countries that have received funds from the United States. Libyan frozen assets should go to the Libyan people, to developing a nation that serves them—-not the US, not France, and not a few cronies at the top. But who will be monitoring this?
We shouldn't lose interest in Libya just because the overt US military presence will soon cease. Iraq was not an isolated case—and America needs to know this. They need to know that it is US policy to intervene militarily in nations when US corporations are not getting their way. They need to know that the justification US officials provide for such interventions always involve musings about freedom and democracy, but the US couldn't give a damn about those ideals as long as the dictator in charge is on its team. And maybe, just maybe, if enough people are looking, it will be more difficult for the US to do its dirty work.
With Occupy Wall Street throwing a spotlight on corporate greed and its snare on US domestic policy, this is the perfect time to expose its corruption of US foreign policy. It is not in the interests of the 99% when the United States conducts military intervention, no matter what ideals officials profess. It is not in the interest of the 99% when the United States imposes regressive economic policies on nations worldwide. You may not know that these events are happening, or why they're happening, but the people in these nations do. And guess what? Many of them don't like the United States for it. And it is the 99% that suffers, while the 1% gets even richer.