That famous quip from Charles de Gaulle many decades ago has a genesis that goes back centuries. It predates Macchiavelli. It predates the devotees of the realpolitik for whom de Gaulle’s line was merely typical of a certain mindset within international relations. And while it sounds rather cold––because it is––it’s also demonstrably true. Matters of “rightness,” “wrongness,” or “moral imperative” make for nice headlines and stump speeches, but they don’t do much to actually explain why nations behave the way they do. The lucky ones can actually make a moral argument at times and make it stick somehow. But even that’s usually tangential to the interests driving certain behaviors. That was even largely the case in the most hallowed of all wars, The DubyaDubyaTwo.
Which brings us to the latest iteration of US Foreign Policy: Libya.
Perusing the discussion of this latest of many attempts to make warfare somehow “humanitarian,” what I’ve found most striking, especially from official circles, is not what’s being said, but rather what isn’t being said. There is virtually no discussion of actual US/EU interests in Libya and as such, it becomes well nigh impossible to get to the real meat of the matter. POTUS said the other day, in his largely vacuous speech, the US doesn’t have any compelling interests in Libya, except perhaps indirectly. Well, even if that were remotely true, indirect interests are still interests and he has a duty to his country to spell out what those interests are. Of course, that’s the last thing this or any other president will do. Somehow it’s easier to convince people that 200 bombing sorties a day is somehow “humanitarian,” than it is to explain US interests. Perhaps there are some perfectly understandable (if revolting) reasons for doing so.
The Revolution Against Neo-Liberalism
Whether or not the throngs of protesters in Tunisia and Egypt really understand it this way, they are to a large extent battling Neo-Liberalism. The corruption they rail against isn’t just a few bad apples stealing where they can. It’s thoroughly institutionalized. It’s made them much poorer and kept them under the boot of oppression for decades. It’s also an economic model the US and EU have been only too keen to foist upon every corner of the planet they can get their grubby hands on. Walter Armbrust writes in Jadaliyya,
To describe blatant exploitation of the political system for personal gain as corruption misses the forest for the trees. Such exploitation is surely an outrage against Egyptian citizens, but calling it corruption suggests that the problem amounts to aberrant behavior from a system that would otherwise function smoothly. If this were the case then the crimes of the Mubarak regime could be attributed simply to bad character: change the people and the problems go away. But the real problem with the regime was not necessarily that high-ranking members of the government were thieves in an ordinary sense. They did not necessarily steal directly from the treasury. Rather they were enriched through a conflation of politics and business under the guise of privatization. This was less a violation of the system than business as usual. Mubarak’s Egypt, in a nutshell, was a quintessential neoliberal state.
Although neoliberalism is now a commonly used term, it is still worth pausing a moment and think about what it means. In his Brief History of Neoliberalism social geographer David Harvey outlined “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” Neoliberal states guarantee, by force if necessary, the “proper functioning” of markets; where markets do not exist (for example, in the use of land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution), then the state should create them. Guaranteeing the sanctity of markets is supposed to be the limit of legitimate state functions, and state interventions should always be subordinate to markets. All human behavior, and not just the production of goods and services, can be reduced to market transactions. The market becomes an end in an of itself, and since the only legitimate function of states is to defend markets and expand them into new spheres, democracy is a potential problem insofar as people might vote for political and economic choices that impede the unfettered operation of markets, or that reserve spheres of human endeavor (education, for example, or health care) from the logic of markets. Hence a pure neoliberal state would philosophically be empowered to defend markets even from its own citizens. As an ideology neoliberalism is as utopian as communism. The application of utopian neoliberalism in the real world leads to deformed societies as surely as the application of utopian communism did.
Armbrust’s last point is what makes this salient in terms of US policy. The “markets” have to be protected from the people who are being so badly damaged by them. And by markets, we’re really just talking about specific business interests. Democracy is a threat to those interests the various publics might deem to be harmful to their standard of living, way of life, or even just their own ability to determine their own fates. This is why the US sided with its client dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, favoring “stability” to democracy. The stability of which they speak has nothing to do with the people of those countries, but rather the stability enjoyed by its favored business interests.
This context is important, because it simultaneously represents a genuine threat to US power in the region… but it also provides a distraction behind which to engage in vastly more aggressive behaviors against that threat.
Where does Libya fit into this?
So what of Libya then? Are we seeing a pro-democracy movement simply in need of protection from a certain whacko tyrant? If that were the case, then why on earth has Qhaddafy enjoyed such cozy relations with the US more recently? Um, no.
The Neo-Cons running US foreign policy really don’t care about democracy, or human rights, or much of anything that doesn’t extend their own power and profits. This needn’t be explained in any great detail at this point, but there are a few good reminders as to who is actually running foreign policy. People like President McCain. From Justin Elliot at Salon:
I noted earlier that Sen. John McCain has taken a strange position on the Libyan conflict: He’s been calling for the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi not only on humanitarian grounds, but also because Gadhafi has “American blood on his hands” from the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. However, just 18 months ago, McCain himself traveled to Tripoli to talk to Gadhafi about a transfer of American military equipment. He also praised the “remarkable and positive turn” in U.S.-Libya relations.
It turns out one of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks describes in detail the friendly meeting between McCain and Gadhafi. It was also attended by fellow hawks Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham as well as Gadhafi’s son, Muatassim. (See video of the meeting here.)
There’s nothing contradictory about previously advocating for normalization of relations with Gadhafi and then shifting, in the face of Gadhafi’s attacks on rebels, to supporting a bombing campaign. That’s not what McCain is doing. He is arguing that Ghadafi needs to be ousted because he has American blood on his hands (from 1988), when the senator himself was meeting with and praising the Libyan regime a mere 18 months ago.
But it’s not just Republicans, as the White House was keen to sell military equipment to Qhaddafy as well. From AP, 7 March this year:
WASHINGTON (AP) — In the months before Libyans revolted and President Barack Obama told leader Moammar Gadhafi to go, the U.S. government was moving to do business with his regime on an increasing scale by quietly approving a $77 million dollar deal to deliver at least 50 refurbished armored troop carriers to the dictator’s military.
Even Ben Bernanke was keen to help out the regime during the financial crisis:
At a time when credit markets shunned even the most worthy borrowers, foreign banks, including one partly-owned by Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, fled to the Federal Reserve and borrowed at rock-bottom interest rates, Fed documents released Thursday show.
During the height of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, as investors and firms hoarded cash, the Fed reduced its rates to kickstart lending in the broader economy. Arab Banking Corp., a $28 billion lender now 59 percent-owned by Libya’s central bank, borrowed at least $3.2 billion during this time. The Fed charged it an interest rate ranging from 2.25 percent to as low as 1.25 percent on those borrowings, regular Fed data show.
The main business interest in improving relations with this regime stems, of course, from oil and gas. To that end,
American oil companies eager to tap Libya’s oil reserves had also put pressure on the U.S. to normalize its relations with the country. David Goldwyn, a longtime State Department official and then head of the U.S.-Libya Business Association—a trade group founded by oil companies—told Bloomberg in 2007 that American companies were losing business because the U.S. wasn’t courting the country as aggressively as other European countries were. Goldwyn currently works as the State Department’s Coordinator for International Energy Affairs. His official bio lists that he was president of his own energy consulting firm, but does not mention his work with Libya.
The trade group’s website, which happens to be down at the moment, describes it as the “only U.S. trade association focusing on the United States and Libya” and says it was “organized to enhance the US-Libya relationship.” (See the cached version from four days ago.)
Ken Silverstein wrote an article back in May 2009, when Goldwyn was being put up for his current position:
Two sources have told me that David Goldwyn, a long-time advocate and consultant for the oil industry and energy-rich Third World countries, is on the short list for a top position at the State Department. One source stated that Goldwyn is being considered for the post of International Energy Coordinator; the other believed he was in the running for the position of Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs. Either way, it would appear to be a conflict-of-interest, to put it mildly.
Goldwyn served at the State Department under George H.W. Bush and at the Energy Department under Bill Clinton. “Goldwyn International Strategies, LLC (GIS) is a leading provider of political and business intelligence, energy sector analysis, and Washington strategy advice to Fortune 100 companies and investment advisers,” says his firm’s website. “Our team of advisors, analysts, and economists has decades of experience in Executive branch and Congressional relations in the United States, and political and economic analysis and diplomacy in Eurasia, East Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.”
Goldwyn is a classic example of how in Washington one can effectively lobby without having to register. As I’ve previously reported, he is a top official at the U.S.-Turkmenistan Business Council, which is primarily funded by American oil companies (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon) hoping to do business in that Stalinist-ruled country. He also heads up the U.S.-Libya Business Association, an oil-endowed entity helping promote Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Goldwyn advocates a form of foreign policy “realism” that makes Brent Scowcroft look like a Quaker spokesman. In the aftermath of 9/11, he argued that the United States should import less oil from the Middle East and more from countries in the equally corrupt regions of Central Asia and West Africa.
Although America’s new oil allies “are often a threat to their own people … they do not harbor or finance groups that threaten U.S. interests,” he told Congress in 2003. In other words, it’s fine that Central Asian and West African regimes are brutalizing and impoverishing their own citizens as long as they sell us their oil and leave us alone.
So that’s a partial set-up to the situation. The US was seemingly fine with Moammar Qhaddafy, as long as they could encourage “economic reforms” to their liking and gain inroads into the oil and gas fields in Libya. There were some arms sales to be made and other business interests to be pursued. The Bush policy, started by Poppy Bush himself and carried to fruition by his son, would also be pursued by the current gang in the White House.
As we’ll see in the next installment, the US is always keen to have other options….