The elephant in the room: Libya's oil

President Barack Obama's speech Tuesday night about the military action in Libya was composed of 3,362 words.

But there were two words conspicuously absent from the 30-minute address: "Oil" and "energy."

Back in the day, when politicians didn't use word like "interest" -- a word that appeared six times in Obama's speech -- as a euphemism, they spoke more plainly. 

A quick history lesson (I know, I know, but I promise I'll keep this short): When Europeans were divvying up the deceased Ottoman Empire after World War I, they spoke openly of the desire to control oil fields as their reason for interest in African and Middle Eastern countries.

Some examples from Margaret MacMillan's excellent book, "Paris: 1919":

• "Mesopotamia, yes, oil, irrigation, we must have Mesoptamia," British Prime Minister Lloyd George said. 

• "We ought to control sufficient ground in front of our vital oil-fields," one of George's advisers wrote.

• Both Britain and France did not want "the Americans, who were starting to take an interest in Middle East oil, muscling in" on oil-rich countries they had claimed, MacMillian wrote.

Now, Libya's massive oil reserves weren't discovered until after World War II, but when they were discovered it became clear that they were, indeed, massive.

Consider: Libya, in an average year, exports $34 billion worth of crude oil, refined petroleum products, natural gas and chemicals, according to the U.S. State Department.

Out of that $34 billion, Italy receives 38 percent; Germany 10 percent; France 8 percent; Spain 8 percent; Switzerland 6 percent and the U.S. 5 percent.

According to the CIA, Libya has the most oil reserves of any country in Africa:


European energy companies -- and U.S. companies, too (Hess and Exxon) -- have claims on numerous areas of the country. (Chart provided by Stratfor.)

As we know, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on "Meet the Press" this Sunday that the civil war in Libya is not in our country's vital interest. (And, it's not, considering we only receive 5 percent of Libya's oil.)

But on the same show, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought up this rather telling point. Speaking of Libya, she said: 

"Do they have a major influence on what goes on in Europe because of everything from oil to immigration?" she asked rhetorically. "... You know, we asked our allies, our NATO allies, to go into Afghanistan with us 10 years ago.  They have been there, and a lot of them have been there despite the fact they were not attacked.  The attack came on us as we all tragically remember.  They stuck with us. When it comes to Libya, we started hearing from the UK, France, Italy, other of our NATO allies. This was in their vital national interest." 

So, there, Clinton said it. Our European allies consider Libya in their vital interest; so, therefore, we're helping them out. That's not necessarily a bad thing: They helped us out in our war; we help them out in their war.

Clinton's statement underscores this point: The West's interest in Africa and the Middle East has historically been centered on controlling natural resources.

I'm not saying there aren't valid present-day humanitarian reasons for going into Libya. Maybe the rebels are good guys? Maybe they are, indeed, preferable to Ghadafi and his forces? I don't know. I haven't vetted them. I sure hope the administration has. I'm inclined to take them at their word, though, that the rebels are on the side of good in this civil war and they need our help.

But with all the terrible tragedies going on all over the world, it's naive to pretend that the underlying reason The West is interested in Libya doesn't have at least something to do with oil.


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