Special Edition Libya: Worldwide Poker Game

By Jay Holmes

In our last post, Dave asked, “How much of the reluctance to act is the result of pressure from European allies concerned about their vulnerability to interruption in the flow of gas and oil from Libya? Or is this just homegrown lack of decisiveness?

This is Holmes’ response. . . .

Thank you for your question Dave. The quick answer is “both,” but if you are bored today keep reading. In my view, there are multiple factors that contribute to inertia in any military activity by the West in Libya. From the European point of view, Italy and the UK have the most to lose in Libya, except for the Libyan people, and they are both wanting to avoid mistakes. Sometimes failure to act while avoiding mistakes can, in itself, be a very big mistake.

The UK has a huge financial stake in Libya and is as oil-dependent as any industrial nation is. Current UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, made clear his disgust for the UK’s unsavory “terrorist prisoner release for oil” dealings with Libya, but he faces the same economic realities that his predecessors did. The UK needs oil from, and trade with, Libya.

In Italy, Berlusconi has been happy to deal openly with Libya, and 70% of Italy’s oil addiction is supplied by that country. Also, Italy has agreements in place with Libya for massive works projects to be completed, principally, by Italian construction companies.

France, and, to a lesser degree, Germany, had been attempting to sign significant trade agreements with Libya, as well. We cannot know what deals are being proposed by whom in the back alleys of Europe’s capitols or in US oil companys’ board rooms, but the motives are easy enough to imagine.

We are not the only one’s wondering about any “deals.” The rebels will naturally maintain their own suspicions about who wants what, but if they are smart they will understand the easy opportunity to make promises of future commercial cooperation in exchange for help now. Overall, Europe may be hoping for the US to act while they play the “slow” game. That way, they can avoid responsibility for any casualties or political fallout while reaping the rewards of any US military activity.

There is, in reality, no military reason why European military forces could not easily handle any intervention in Libya without involvement by US forces. Europe has been touting the superior magical qualities of the Euro-fighter since its conception. Europe now has the opportunity to demonstrate the “fight” aspect of the “Eurofighter,” and France could show us the superiority that they have been claiming for their fighter aircraft as well. Let’s see if it happens. Are they just tax-funded, expensive paperweights, or will they be used as Von Clausewitz, a political theorist, would recommend, as an extension of European political policy? Any desire by European governments for US intervention in Libya would be driven by the desire for the USA to pay the lion’s share of the fiscal and political costs.

As for the USA, Obama ran on a somewhat “anti-military” platform. He told us that he would quickly clean up the mess in Iraq, and that he would chase terrorists from Afghanistan while leaving a tidy little democracy in place. He has thus far achieved neither of these goals. In addition, the US courts have apparently crippled his controversial health care reform bill. Obama has used up lots of political capital without achieving any correspondent political victories since coming to power. And on top of these obvious failures, he still faces massive unemployment in the US.

Obama has proposed budget cuts for the Military while still having to feed the gods of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. War gods don’t usually work cheap. They require blood and treasure. For Obama to order US forces to intervene in Libya may be pragmatic in strategic terms and easy in military terms, but it would not be welcomed by his shrinking political base at home. Self-declared, lock-step American “liberals” are not likely to support a Republican candidate, but Obama and the rest of his party need the vote of pragmatic independents to avoid disaster in the next elections.

Naturally, North Korea was not going to let this period of Western stress pass without trying to improve crazy Kim’s position on the world’s geopolitical stage. Not surprisingly, Little Kimy has announced the development of a magnetic impulse nuclear weapon.

In case Obama didn’t have enough on his mind, he has had to respond to the sad tragedy in Japan by having the US Navy use 3rd Fleet (east Pacific) ships to reinforce the US 7th Fleet (far east fleet) in an attempt to deliver medical and logistical aid to the earthquake-ravaged northeastern Japan. Even the USA has a finite number of naval assets. And while the US 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean has been reinforced to deal with Libya, the US 5th Fleet (Indian Ocean) is continuing its operations in support of our forces in Afghanistan and must deal with ongoing threats by Iran in the straits of Hormuz. And then we have those nasty pirates in Somalia to contend with.

The US Navy is busy this month, and the Pentagon would love to have use of the US-financed bases in Italy to utilize US Air Force assets to conduct any air operations over Libya. If, after financing these bases and pouring in so many millions of dollars into the Italian economy for more than half a century, Italy refuses to cooperate on this point, I think it would represent a turning point for the USA in its troublesome and costly relations with Italy. Change would come quietly, but change would indeed come.

Both Obama and his European “allies” would love to see Gadhafi vanish from the world political stage. In this they are in agreement. But neither Europe, nor the US, wants to help usher in the world’s next theocratic tyrant state. The Libyan revolutionaries have yet to organize enough to present a clear image of themselves to the West so the West is not yet sure what it is being asked to support.

The Arab League has, in a sense, passed the ball back to the Western powers by quickly agreeing to a “no fly” operation over Libya. They are, at the same time, demanding “no military intervention by the West.” I guess in English we can translate that as “make Gadhafi go away, and then we’ll be mad at you for it.” Hardly a surprise.

It seems to me that the most critical need for the Libyan rebels is to establish believable communications with the Western powers. Against this obvious need, they feel a strong instinct to obtain their own “victory” without Western intervention. The rebels will have to get over their own cultural limitations if they wish assistance from the West in removing Gadhafi.

Obama and his policy formulators will have to make their best calculation of what the sum of all the forces at play add up to. This normally simple Newtonian calculation is complicated by everyone’s inability to accurately define the Libyan rebels.

Everyone wants that malodorous diaper changed, but no one wants to be the one to clean the offending baby.

Now take two aspirin and call me in the morning if you need another headache.

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 A history of Libya to help us understand the current dynamics of the unfolding situation:

Special Edition Libya: Timeline, Part I

Special Edition Libya: Timeline, Part II

Special Edition Libya: Timeline, Part III

An Analysis as of March 12, 2011.